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By Edward Copeland
Documentaries can breed false expectations in a viewer in much the same way a fictional feature can and, unfortunately, that is the case with the latest in HBO Documentary Films' summer series, There's Something Wrong With Aunt Diane. The film sets up a mystery at its outset about what caused a tragic two-car accident that left eight people, including four children, dead, and implies that the filmmakers uncovered new details about the incident. Instead, by the film's end, the viewer arrives where he or she began, only this time asking what the point of the journey was in the first place.

On Sunday, July 26th, 2009, Diane Schuler drove the wrong way
on the Taconic Parkway for almost two miles, crashing and killing eight people
— herself, her daughter, three nieces and all three people in the oncoming vehicle.

That title card appears in There's Something Wrong With Aunt Diane after we hear a flurry of 911 calls from other motorists reporting the minivan driving the wrong way on the freeway as well as concerned relatives who say that the children had called expressing concern about their aunt, saying she wasn't responding to them and was acting strangely and that she wasn't answering her cell phone.

Schuler was heading back to Long Island after a weekend camping trip to upstate New York. She drove the minivan packed with lots of belongings and the kids while her husband Daniel was in another vehicle with the dog and more equipment. A 35-minute drive ended up taking four hours and resulted in one of the worst traffic fatalities in New York state history. The only survivor was her severely injured son Bryan, 5. At first, the well-publicized tragedy led to an outpouring of sympathy for Daniel Schuler and his family, but that all changed nine days later when the toxicology report returned showing Diane had a blood-alcohol level of .19, the equivalent of 10 drinks and twice the legal limit, as well as high levels of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana.

Suddenly, the tide turned and the family was demonized, subject to harassing emails and messages. However, Daniel and his sister-in-law, Jay Hanse, refused to believe this could be the truth and set out on a public campaign to find out what really happened to Diane. Admittedly, many things don't jive with the stereotype of an intoxicated driver. Videotapes from a gas station where she stopped for gas and went inside, apparently to look for an over-the-counter painkiller, though it's not clear how they make this assumption, and nothing seems amiss in her demeanor. Also, all the witness calling 911 to report the driver speeding the wrong way on the Taconic Parkway said that she was driving perfectly straight, without any swerving at all.

Daniel and Jay engage the services of famed attorney Dominic A. Barbara, who says he took more heat for representing Diane Schuler's interests than he did representing the Buttafuocos or Jessica Hahn. Interestingly, not mentioned in the documentary and that I discovered by accident is that Barbara was suspended from the practice of law in New York in February of this year. Surely, the filmmakers had time to add that detail since one of the most interesting parts of the film is that Barbara hires investigator Tom Ruskin who retests the samples from Diane, but then keeps them and never reveals the results though when they get a hold of him, he claims he gave the results to Barbara. Then again, Ruskin doesn't have the cleanest rep either, so you have to wonder if the family was being scammed since in the end the results were the same and all it got them was more stress and huge bills. That is yet another detail absent from the film.

I can't say for certainty what happened in this tragedy, but by the end of the movie I felt more like the daughters of Michael Bastardi, 81, who was killed in the other vehicle along with his son Guy, 43, and friend Daniel Longo, 72. They say they've forgiven Diane, but they can't forgive Daniel or Jay yet because they are in such denial and won't let the matter rest and that seems to be the truth. Throughout the film, they slip. Daniel will say Diane drank like once a month, but then explains the vodka bottle in the minivan as something they kept at the campsite that must have been packed by accident. He says she never smoked pot one minute and then amends it to not that often in another.

Old high school friends that Diane lost touch with tell how she was very private. One mentions that Diane's mother left when she was young and she appears to know what happened, but won't discuss it. The most telling moment of the film to me is when Daniel and Jay, after meeting with another doctor trying to find a medical explanation, stop outside the building. Daniel moves on, but Jay lags behind and puffs on a cigarette, admitting that no one in her family knows that she smokes. In a family that guarded and private, if Jay can smoke in secret, how hard is it to make the leap that Diane might have drank more than her family knew?

The film warns that it contains graphic accident footage and toward the end they show photos of Diane's corpse that really add nothing to the film but by that point, I'd grown tired of watching Daniel and Jay live their lives of denial. It's a sad story and perhaps a larger explanation remains as to what happened to Diane Schuler that tragic day, but There's Something Wrong About Diane doesn't deliver it. The film sets up a premise that leads you to believe new answers might be found but none are. Instead, it ends up making you feel as if you just wasted your time. It's a disappointment from director Liz Garbus who, among many other documentaries, helmed an earlier entry in the HBO summer documentary series, the excellent Bobby Fischer Against the World.

There's Something Wrong With Aunt Diane premieres on HBO tonight at 9 p.m. Eastern/Pacific and 8 p.m. Central.

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