For a decidedly dreary indie film, Diane is pretty great

Mary Kay Place portrays an older single woman weighed down by guilt and the need to help everyone but herself.

Andrea Martin and Mary Kay Place in Diane

Perhaps for the first time in…ever, audiences will be able to choose between two films about a single, older woman. The eponymous women in Gloria Bell and Diane are both empty nesters struggling to loosen their caring hold from their children. Neither have quite gotten used to putting themselves first. But while Gloria is hell bent on falling in love, Diane, a widow, doesn’t seem to factor a love life into her busy schedule of volunteering and helping out anyone who so much as winces.

This is not a review of Gloria Bell, but I write about it here because the movies reveal each other’s weaknesses and successes as films and portrayals of middle aged women. Gloria is a film full of joy and sunlight, with its California sun bursting through whenever it can. Diane, meanwhile, set in a dreary town in upstate New York, is melancholic in tone and texture. Every frame is weighed down by its protagonist’s hidden guilt. Diane, portrayed in a touching performance by Mary Kay Place, is a do-gooder. If she’s guilty of anything, it’s of doing too much. She is either at her cousin’s side, serving hot meals to the poor or bringing fresh laundry and food to her grown-up son Brian (Jake Lacy) who struggles with substance abuse. But Diane’s selflessness is less pure altruism than it is a penitence for a past betrayal. Gloria is invested in showing us its protagonists’ self love after years of putting others first and Diane is more interested in its protagonists’ pursuit for others people’s happiness.

The film opens with the sound of laboured breathing and beeping hospital machines. Diane has fallen asleep at her dying cousin’s side (Deirdre O’Connell) and when she wakes with a start, the first thing she says is, “What’s wrong?” It’s Diane’s tagline, the question she keeps asking in the hopes of solving it. Though she is by no means passive, Diane’s selflessness is a form of active resistance. More than once she stands her ground and raises her voice. This is not a portrait of a sweet old lady.

The film is less interested in plot and more in the passing of time. There are a lot of deaths and funerals in Diane. They each come with less and less of a surprise to us and Diane, who is reminded multiple times by her friends and family that she, and everyone she loved, will die. Cheery! Of course, there are moments of joy in the film. But they are few and far between. In that sense, it’s hard to get a real sense of who Diane is, given that we don’t see her full range of emotions. Another similarity to Gloria is the love of dancing. But where Gloria’s dancing feels like a primal urge, a rejection of ageist ideas of who can and can’t dance, Diane’s feels anguished, like she’s dancing with a memory of her youth, coaxed out from her cocktail and culminating in a breakdown. Nothing feels good if it’s coated in guilt. As one character from the soup kitchen that Diane works at puts it,  Diane “apologizes for breathing in too much air in the room.” The problem is that the origin of the guilt isn’t explored enough. A dream sequence paints a picture of what might’ve transpired, and Diane journals about her feelings, but this transgression years ago, or as it’s referred to “that summer in the Cape,” doesn’t carry the intended weight.

However, through its limited perspective, Diane achieves a great deal of nuance and piercing moments. Every scene features Diane, and no scene lingers for long once she leaves it. Whether this is limiting in scope or diving into one character’s experience is up for debate. But I did find myself wishing for reactions to her from others. Though Mary Kay Place does a commendable job carrying the film, the supporting cast elevates it from a moody indie film to an engaging story about getting older and waiting for death to come knocking. As we see throughout the film, we resist acknowledging our pain despite it being glaringly obvious to others. Nobody in Diane completely gives in to her help. Her family and friends brush her off, telling her that they can manage and her son yells and screams at her when she tries to wake him up from his fugue state. Nobody completely allows themselves to be helped, especially Diane. ■

Diane opens in theatres on Friday, April 26. Watch the trailer here: