Every Monday night, HBO airs a new film as part of their Documentary Films Summer Series, and damn if some of them haven’t been great. The first I saw was Hot Coffee, which examines four popular cases, highlighting areas in each that you may be unfamiliar with. For example: you probably think the woman who sued McDonald’s after she spilled hot coffee on herself was just some quack trying to make a buck. Well, did you ever see the pictures of what the coffee did to her skin?
Next was Sex Crimes Unit, a hard-to-stomach look at the day-to-day workings of the New York’s Sex Crime Unit, which overseas roughly 300 pending sex crimes cases every day.
While Hot Coffee and Sex Crimes Unit have managed to linger in my head since I viewed them, I suspect There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane will continue to haunt me for weeks.
Two years ago yesterday, Diane Schuler, a 36-year-old “hyper-perfect mother” and hard-working professional, packed her minivan full of kids (two of her own and three nieces) and headed home after camping in upstate New York. Four hours later, she drove the wrong way on the Taconic State Parkway for 1.7 miles, eventually hitting another car, killing herself and seven others. Days later, Diane’s toxicology report revealed she had had roughly 10 alcoholic drinks and an extremely high level of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, in her blood at the time of the crash.
Diane’s family, particularly her husband, Danny, and sister-in-law, Jay, immediately cried foul. Diane, her husband tells us, rarely drank and would have never put the kids at risk under any circumstance. Other family members agree, but as more facts begin to reveal themselves, our perception of the accident begins to curve as well.
By seeking permission from the Shulers to film their story, it initially appears that director Liz Garbus is siding with the family; believing their every word. But as the film progresses, we realize that isn’t the case at all. At one point, Garbus (off camera) asks Jay what she hopes to gain from doing another set of toxicology tests. Jay says she wants answers; she wants to prove that Diane wasn’t on drugs or alcohol. “And if the results come back the same as before?” Garbus asks. “Well… yeah… that’s what has me worried,” Jay responds.
This denial of evidence is not only what the film relies on for dramatic merit, it’s what keeps the film in evocative motion.
Danny and Jay assert that Diane hardly drank, why then was a smashed bottle of vodka found in the van after the crash? Danny admits that Diane used marijuana rarely as a way to relax, Jay says she used it liberally. If Diane couldn’t see the road while driving (as the kids in the van told their other relatives via cell phone), why didn’t she simply pull over? Why did Diane stop just after a toll booth on the Tappan Zee Bridge and leave her cell phone on the side of the road? And what, most obviously, caused her to drive 70 miles per hour the wrong way on a major highway?
|The Shuler's minivan after the crash|
The black and white is: Diane Shuler, the $100,000 a year breadwinner who was by all accounts a dedicated “supermom,” killed eight people that day. She had no history of alcohol or drug abuse, no history of depression, and no signs of a chemical imbalance. She rarely discussed her personal life and was assumed to function well at a high level of stress. She was a perfect mom, and a devoted wife. But as Garbus told HBO: “Life is often messy. We want answers. We want black and white, but often times the truth lies in the gray.”
I’ve rarely seen the explorations of that gray to be as haunting as it is in There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane. This is a disturbing film. From the eyewitness calls of panic in seeing a minivan drive the wrong way on a highway, to the calls of sheer terror at the scene of the collision, to gruesome photos of the accident, to the tearful memories of what was, and what will never be.
If you have HBO, I implore you to watch this film (OnDemand or otherwise). In a year already filled with fantastic theatrical documentaries, the best one yet is airing on premium cable television. A
For more about the film, click here.