Summer Doc Series: There’s Something Wrong With Aunt Diane

By  · Published on July 25th, 2011

On a crisp day in 2009, following a beautiful vacation weekend in July, Diane Schuler drove her 1993 Windstar full of children going the wrong direction on the Taconic State Parkway in New York. She drove for 1.7 miles before the fatal crash that took her life, the lives of all but one of the children riding with her, and the three men in one of the vehicles she collided with.

This is a tragedy to be sure, but director Liz Garbus’s documentary on the subject is nothing short of a garbled mess.

Imagine someone tells you they heard about a great mystery. They give you details, set the scene, raise your interest, and then spend the next half hour telling you all about the personal lives of the people involved instead of actively tracking down the facts that will lead to the resolution of the mystery. That’s exactly what’s happened here. Like she did with A Matter of Taste, Bobby Fischer Against the World, Garbus has shown that she can’t nail down a forward direction for a story with a lot of layers. The plot is lost almost from the outset.

What seems clear is that this huge event took place, and when a toxicology report came back from the autopsy, the woman responsible was found to have an off-the-charts blood/alcohol level as well as a high rate of exposure to marijuana at the time of the crash. This information came as a shock to her husband, Dan Schuler, as well as the rest of the family who went public to contest the results and aver the faith they had in their beloved Diane.

This is just about as compelling as it gets, but instead of attacking the information face on (or even delivering a straightforward, comprehensible list of the facts), Garbus and company then get lost in half an hour of early family history that almost (almost) feels as if it’s trying to get the audience on Diane’s side. Instead of learning about the event, we learn about her childhood and then the truly questionable scenes get going.

Amongst them are talks with the woman who ran the camp grounds where the Schuler family vacationed before the fatal accident. She ultimately claims that Diane didn’t seem at all intoxicated when she left, but that’s after a brief commercial for how peaceful her place is. Follow that with several experts that know nothing specific to the case who continue throughout the documentary to speculate on her mental state and give vague information about the kind of person that she might have been (even though they clearly never spoke with her or met her). Instead of getting answers, we get interviews with childhood friends that haven’t talked to Diane in years.

The problem here is that there is, at the same time, too much relevant information and not nearly enough. The facts that exist clearly point to Diane having alcohol and THC in her system at the time of the crash, but the family cannot accept that as the final answer. It’s a manufactured mystery. so when the action does pick up, it involves Daniel and Diane’s sister-in-law trying to get a secondary toxicology report to clear Diane’s name (after a complete character assassination done in the press and on the internet). They firmly believe that Diane was dealing with tooth pain that could have caused a medical event on the road which then caused the accident. The difficulty here is that this particular mystery really contains one element, and Garbus has to stretch the rest of the running time to fit.

Eventually, the toxicology report comes back, and it re-frames the family, but not in the way you might expect.

If there’s a saving grace to this confusing documentary, it’s that it ultimately tells the story of people who are unable to cope with the mistakes of someone they love. Whether Schuler had been drinking recreationally or doing it to fend off massive tooth pain is irrelevant. She still got the alcohol into her system and got into a minivan with five children inside, ready for the road. Yes, the circumstances surrounding the event are eyebrow-raising (as is the unorganized way they’re presented in the documentary), but the question always returns to the gigantic irresponsibility shown in Schuler’s final moments, alcohol or no.

Her husband and sister-in-law become personal conspiracy theorists in a way because of it. They refuse to believe that their loved one would have done something so heinous, so they search for answers that can never be proven or can never match up. Therein lies the humanity of the movie. It’s just a shame that the filmmakers couldn’t find it.

What results is a muddled retelling of an already-complex story that never finds its center, spends too much time trying to prove that its central figure really was a good person (although it gets respect for interviewing the family of two of the men who were killed in the crash), and filling the rest with contextless shots of the locations and talking heads who have absolutely nothing to do with the event.

There’s Something Wrong With Aunt Diane premieres tonight, 7/15, at 9pm EST/PST on HBO.

Correction: In an earlier posting of this review, I referred to Garbus’s other HBO doc as A Matter of Taste instead of Bobby Fischer vs The World. Apologies all around.

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