Affecting performances can't save labored school shooting drama

The Life Before Her Eyes

on April 18, 2008 by Amy Nicholson

In this labored, high-falutin’ drama about the aftereffects of a school shooting, Evan Rachel Wood and Eva Amurri’s affecting performances can’t compensate for a choppy screenplay that confuses plumbing for deep meaning with boredom. The weepy matinee crowd might give it a gander, but worth of mouth should push it into an early grave.

Two teen girls fix their lipstick in a bathroom mirror. Gunshots crack through the hall. Their classmates and teachers scream. The shooter barges in—a slight, mop-top boy (John Magaro) who points his pistol at the best friends and orders them to decide which one dies. The scene grabs your gut and squeezes; it’s a whopper. And as it’s the only interesting moment in Vadim Perelman’s stultifying, somber arthouse drama, he rations it out frame by frame so that at least every 10 minutes there’s something to wake up for.

Those desperate girls are Diana (Evan Rachel Wood) and Maureen (Eva Amurri). Maureen is the good girl, a religious-martyr-in-training who dreams of nothing grander than a four-foot picket fence and a house full of babies. Diana is Wood’s specialty, a long-legged, snub-nosed blonde bursting at the seams with restlessness and rebellion. She’s that girl in school destined for greatness or an early grave. Just months ago, she was arrested for kicking a boy in the crotch, and she’ll be damned if she’ll stay in this tiny town one week past graduation. Why are she and Maureen friends? Plot contrivances, mostly. The gulf between their personalities means that they’re always waxing philosophical about the meaning of life rather than dishing about boys. Wood and Amurri have a fresh naturalism that almost sells their half of the film, but you still feel that screenwriter Emil Stern must not have snooped at too many slumber parties.

We don’t know exactly what violence happened that day at school, but we know the effect. Fifteen years later, Evan Rachel Wood has transformed into Uma Thurman. She’s unrecognizable—not just because of Thurman’s uniquely lupine features, but because this girl gone wild has gone timid. Married to a professor (Brett Cullen), and with a young daughter named Emma (Gabrielle Brennan), she’s stuck in the same backwoods village where her morning commute takes her past the old nightmare (hell on her focus behind the wheel). Diana has designed her future to be a padded cell; it looks like comfort, but keeps her trapped. (If your old nuns are still glaring at you, isn’t in time to move?) Slowly, we realize that, in homage to Maureen, she’s trying to live out the life her best friend wanted, but it’s really just a lot of scenes of Uma biting her lips and bursting into tears (how fearful!) intercut with scenes of Evan banging older men (how fearless!).

What this film knows about grief, you could put in a haiku. (It’d read: “Death sucks, like really/Nothing else matters, ever/Therapy—what’s that?”) When Perelman suspects his poignant shots of Uma furrowing her brow aren’t carrying any emotional weight, he starts packing on the metaphors and symbolism along with saturated shots of happy flowers or rotting fruit, depending on what mood he’s forcing. Sometimes, he repeats scenes as if the second time around, we’ll finally give a damn. Other times, he adds in portentous thunder. Worse, in its last minutes, the film tries a dire psychodrama Hail Mary narrative gamble that dashes what small purpose it achieved.

“The heart is the strongest muscle,” we hear ad nauseum, but I couldn’t wait to exercise my hamstrings by high-tailing it out of the theater.

Distributor: Magnolia
Cast: Eva Rachel Wood, Uma Thurman and Eva Amurri
Director: Vadim Perelman
Screenwriter: Emil Stern
Producers: Marc Butan, Anthony Katagas, Vadim Perelman and Aimee Peyronnet
Genre: Drama
Rating: R for violent and disturbing content, language and brief drug use.
Running time: 90 min.
Release date: April 16, 2008

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