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There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane: What Morality, Medicine & Documentary Can’t

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

Acclaimed documentarian Liz Garbus‘s most recent documentary feature, There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane (which premiered this week on HBO), examines what might have led supermom Diane Schuler to drive a borrowed minivan southbound in the northbound lane of the New York’s Taconic State Parkway two years ago. With her two young children and her three nieces (all under the age of ten) as passengers, Schuler drove her borrowed minivan at a high rate of speed until it collided head-on with another vehicle. The crash caused the deaths of eight people, including all three occupants of the other car, four of Schuler’s five passengers, and Schuler herself. Police investigators retrieved an empty vodka bottle from Schuler’s vehicle and the official toxicology report subsequently revealed both that Schuler’s blood alcohol level was more than twice the legal limit and also that Schuler had recently ingested marijuana.

Beyond these details of the incident, the only certainty the documentary offers is suggested by its title, There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane. (The title is itself a quote borrowed from a statement Schuler’s eight year old niece Emma Hance reportedly made in a cell phone call roughly an hour before the fatal crash.) As it explores what might have been “wrong” with Diane Schuler that day, the film does not provide a single, clarifying explanation for Schuler’s actions and neither demonizes nor vindicates her. This will almost certainly frustrate those viewers who crave narrative closure for the story Garbus tells. Yet to view the documentary’s meticulous ambiguity as a failing looks past much of what makes There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane a compelling and contributive documentary portrait of how contemporary U.S. culture comprehends intoxication and its impact on society.

The search for the “something wrong” with Diane Schuler provides the narrative structure to Garbus’s documentary as the camera follows Diane’s husband Danny and (especially) her sister-in-law Jay as they seek a satisfying explanation for what happened. Danny and Jay fervently reject the official police explanation for the crash (that Diane Schuler was severely intoxicated) because such an explanation is radically inconsistent with the person they believe Diane to have been. Garbus follows as Danny and Jay seek what they call a “medical” explanation for Diane’s actions, helping along the way to untangle the information snarls created by the several ongoing investigations.

Yet, even as it takes seriously Danny and Jay Schuler’s need to find satisfying answers, Garbus’s film assiduously avoids providing answers of its own. Instead, Garbus draws upon the conventions of television “news” magazine shows to scrutinize the inherent limits of the two dominant narratives available to explain intoxication and its societal impact. These prevailing explanations are, on the  stubbornly familiar hand, that intoxication is a signal feature of moral turpitude and, on the other, that intoxication is but a symptom of a psychomedical disorder. In the film, Danny and Jay Schuler reject the idea that Diane was drunk/high on emphatically moral terms, affirming repeatedly that Diane was a “good mother” and was not “the kind of person” to drive while intoxicated. At the same time, Danny and Jay’s faith in Diane’s character is matched only by their belief in the potential of contemporary forensic investigation techniques to reveal a medical explanation for Diane’s actions. This is the point, it seems to me, of Garbus’s film: to document the tenacity of Danny and Jay’s faith, both in Diane and in science, as those parallel faiths inevitably collide with the known (and unknowable) facts of the deadly crash.

Thus, with subtlety and emotional precision, Liz Garbus’s film reveals how morality remains an intransigient, prevailing explanation for why someone drinks even as ascendant, comparably totalizing medical (whether psychiatric or forensic) explanations become ever more familiar. Yet the contribution of Garbus’s film derives from how deftly it underscores the inadequacy of all these discourses (whether moral, medical, or cinematic) to finally answer the tacit question so hauntingly posed by Emma Hance as she observed There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane.

There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane will play for HBO subscribers and on HBO enabled devices in rotation in the coming months. A DVD release of the film has not yet been scheduled.

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