The Life Before Her Eyes
Many people would consider themselves very fortunate indeed if they managed to survive a tragic event. To remain alive while others are killed might be something most would celebrate but for many who have gone through such an ordeal they become distant and withdrawn. It is called survivor’s guilt and is commonly found with those who return from war. It can also happen to people who were alive after something like a school shooting spree. This is the basic premise of the film ‘The Life Before Her Eyes’. This is a difficult movie to watch since it does endeavor to examine this type of guilt through the eyes of a woman who as a teenager survived a shooting at her high school. The perspective is told in two time periods; as a teen and as an adult. This required two actresses for the same character. This has been done many times in film before such as in the 1995 flick ‘Now and Then’. Here it gives a similar temporal vantage point to the audience showing but the origins and the adult dysfunctions resulting from the traumatic events. One of the main things that the cast and crew making a film have to worry about is how the very touchy subject matter will be received. After Columbine school shootings have been a hot topic not only with audiences but with the executives in the movie studios. The public still has some raw nerves when it comes to children killing in their schools and rightfully so. If a film like this isn’t careful it will find itself going beyond good taste. Trying to avoid that may plunge the story into the murky deeps of melodrama. This particular movie avoids being offensive but does cross over to melodrama several times. Overall it is a solid movie that will stir up some feelings that may be uncomfortable. This alone may be one reason for the string of bad press that has followed it. It is not a bad flick it is just concerned with some very arduous topics.
The screenplay by Emil Stern was based on the novel by Laura Kasischke, a well respected author and professor of literature. Stern is new to writing for the screen; this is her first scripting credit. A lot of credit has to be given to Stern for even attempting such a difficult and emotional story right out of the gate. Screenwriters with many years of experience would be hard pressed to come up with a story as cohesive and powerful as this one. One of the more interesting plot points presented here is how a personality develops between the teen years and adulthood. While the shooting in school and the loss of her best friend certainly was the most significant event shaping the life of the protagonist it was not only situation that affected her adult persona. Diana played as an adult by Uma Thurman and as a teen by Evan Rachel Wood, is shown as a complexly drawn character. As a teenager she was the proverbial wild child. She experimented with drugs, alcohol and sex; the latter resulting in an abortion that would also haunt the adult version of the character. As an adult Diana is moody, often withdrawn and overprotective of her own teenage daughter, Emma (Gabrielle Brennan). She sees too much of her own younger self in her young daughter and wants to spare the girl at least some of the pain that resulted from her rebellious days. This is the kind of screenplay that lays out the important factors in the character’s life and gives the audience credit for enough intelligence to piece things together on their own. In the past Stern provides a portrait of two young women; one wild the other a Christian. Both are realistically shown avoiding the usual movie stereotypes. The friend, Maureen (Eva Amurri) is not the Bible thumping kind of Christians that are normally shown in a story like this. She wears somewhat more modest versions of the same clothes the other kids does and tries to live her faith more than shout about it. The young Diana is wild but there is a glimmer of a girl who cares about things and just has a need to be accepted. This is the unlikely type of friendships that seem to normally happen in high school. Diana polarizes too much when she refers to them as ‘the virgin and the whore’, but this is an honest view of how the character sees them. Stern doesn’t hit the viewers over the head with ‘sudden realizations’. She allows the director and excellent cast guide the audience towards the required conclusions. This in itself demonstrates great skill and Ms Stern will certainly be a writer to watch in coming years.
The biggest potential fault of the film might lie in the direction by Vadim Perelman. This is his sophomore opus; his first film was the highly acclaimed ‘House of Sand and Fog’. Here he employs some fancy almost surrealistic camera work and effects to tell the story. Normally I get annoyed with such visual devices as they seem more at home in a film school project than a feature film. What has to be remembered is the dual nature of the story. The present is more realistically depicted while the flashbacks are dreamlike in quality. This does impart a feel that these past scenes are colored through the memories of adult Diana instead of being actual presentations of past events. Perelman is working towards a stylistic approach to separate thee two time periods. He colors the past since this is how we remember those events. He does have the tendency towards some metaphorical imagery but that is a stylistic choice reserved for the director and should be respected even if you disagree with the results.
At the start of the film we see young Diana smoking a joint with some other girls in their locker room. Maureen comes in and warns them to put it out. When the teacher enters she immediately targets Diana. This makes for yet another tense car ride home with her mother (Molly Price). Mom likes Maureen hoping she will be a positive influence on her daughter. One year later Diana is best friends with Maureen. They are at school one morning starting what should be a day like all the rest. Diana has to go into the bathroom and Maureen goes with her. There they hear screams outside followed by the unmistakable sounds of automatic gunfire. As the girls stand there in shock Diana realizes she knows who the gunman is, Michael Patrick (John Magaro). Yesterday in class he told her he was going to bring a gun to school and kill everybody. Diana dismissed it as just talk but know she knows she could have done something to prevent what is going on outside the door. Patrick kicks the bathroom door open; behind him a teacher lies bleeding to death. The girls beg for their lives but Patrick insists that he will only kill one of them and they have to choose which one. Fifteen years later Diana is a wife and mother still living in the same small town. The anniversary of the event is coming up and she is getting increasingly distant as the memories she has tried so hard to repress come flooding back.
Wood certainly has the better role here as the young Diana. She has to change over the course of her portion of the story from the free spirited nearly out of control teen to the shell of a woman she is becoming. Thurman’s Diana is more one dimensional which is to be expected considering she is the truly damaged face of the character. There is no real tangible antagonist for the adult Diana which may put some of the audience off. She is fighting her personal demons buried in her past. Diana is crushed as an adult with so many ‘what ifs’. If she had only told somebody about Patrick or not let Maureen die. If she had not had an abortion; all of these decisions come back to haunt her. In many ways Maureen is the conscience of Diana; a true friend who wants Diana to be a better person by not acting out.
This is a complex drama that is often difficult to watch. It brings up such a plethora of emotions that it is easy for the audience to lose some of the narrative but subsequent viewings will bring new insight into the story. The DVD is released by Magnolia Home Entertainment and once again they find a worth while film and present it to a broader audience. It does move a bit too much to the artsy side of cinema but the strong story and excellent cast save the day.