I was glad to see HBO's summer documentary series get love in the Entertainment Weekly's must list, if only because it confirmed what I already knew: this year's non-fiction slate from the cable network has been fantastic.
That fact hasn't gotten enough attention, and this week's offering just makes the case stronger. "There's Something Wrong with Aunt Diane" (HBO, 9 tonight) is powerful, sad and illuminating.
The doc follows the case of the wrong way driver on New York's Taconic State Parkway in 2009. Diane Schuler was found to have marijuana and alcohol in her system as she drove her three nieces and her own two children. In the end, she killed herself, four of the children and three people in another car. Her young son survived.
Schuler was demonized by the public, but her husband and sister-in-law insisted something had to be wrong; it just wasn't in Diane's character to do such an irresponsible thing. They wanted forensic tests redone. They participated in this doc, hoping to get proof of their assertions, and some answers.
Director Liz Garbus has created a slow burner of a film. Without sensationalism or embellishment, she recreates the day of the horrific accident, and even though you know how it ends, there's plenty of tension.
But really, the accident isn't the thing here; it's really about how a family copes with something this horrific, how it heals, how it moves forward, how it comes to terms. We see Danny Schuler, Diane's husband, and her sister-in-law Jay, talk about the woman they know -- or in some ways, didn't know. Diane, a perfectionist, held a lot back. You also see her surviving son Bryan, now an only child, still healing from his physical injuries and coping with life along with his father, who has a lot of anger.
As difficult as the accident is to contemplate, the pain of this surviving family is hard to watch too. They're searching for answers they may never have.
There's a warning included about an accident scene that might be tough to watch. It is (no it's not the children), probably most especially for the family, but it didn't feel gratuitous. In an odd way, it gives Diane Schuler back her humanity.
The Hance family (Diane's brother and his wife who lost their 3 girls) didn't participate in the film and don't have contact with the Schulers, although Jackie Hance did speak to Ladies Home Journal. I could see them not watching this piece, but in away, they should. It doesn't give definitive answers, but it does offer greater understanding about Aunt Diane and the choice she made.