THE LIFE BEFORE HER EYES
Running Time 90 minutes
Written by Emil Stern
Directed by Vadim Perelman
Starring Evan Rachel Wood, Uma Thurman, Eva Amurri
Thanks to the enchanting Evan Rachel Wood, half of a labored melodrama called The Life Before Her Eyes is agreeably watchable. The rest of it is dead on arrival. Still a favorite of mine after following her through 52 episodes of my favorite TV series Once and Again, she grows more into a pubescent Grace Kelly with every new role. Alas, the roles are getting sicker. In this one, she’s a 17-year-old named Diana in the high-school girl’s room, smoking forbidden cigarettes and smoothing her blush in the mirror with her best gal pal, when she hears the first shots. Then the whole school is dripping blood, and the bitter student with the machine gun bursts into the toilet. Although she miraculously survives, her life is never the same again. She is left emotionally maimed.
Years pass. Now she is Uma Thurman, a respected teacher, wife and mother with a daughter of her own. Outwardly, she seems fine. But she is paralyzed with terror, irritable, short-tempered and unable to sleep. Doomed to relive the unimaginable horrors of that Columbine-style massacre, the “real life” she dreamed of after graduation has turned out very differently than the one she hoped for. On the 16th anniversary of the tragedy, when the town stages a memorial service for both the victims and survivors, Diana refuses to attend, but keeps seeing herself at 17, on the street, in the classroom, standing where her own daughter now stands, fondling her present-day husband sexually. Clearly, she is going mad, losing touch with reality, headed for the cracker factory. To make matters more confusing, the action switches back and forth between decades, with both actresses playing Diana. Fragments of the teenage shooting blend with threads of adult life, creating concentric circles of observation and reflection. Older Diana is now in danger of passing her distrust and mourning to her own child, while younger Diana and her best friend Maureen talk about sex, religion and driver ed. The movie begins to drag. Suddenly, it becomes clear that nobody is who they seem to be. Was it straight-laced, religiously obsessed Maureen (wonderfully played by Eva Amurri) who died in a bloodbath, or precociously sexy Diana? Or, in fact, did nothing ever happen at all? Each revelation becomes another example of the film’s naïve spaz-queen literary style. The clues about what is real and what is not are less tantalizing than intended, and the movie is drenched with enough symbolism and imagery to make Wes Anderson blush (too many references to Alice in Wonderland, William Blake and Schopenhauer for a subtle viewer to endure without gagging). I liked director Vadim Perelman’s provocative first film, House of Sand and Fog, but this one is a mess. Another Columbine redux is more than I want to envision. But the switch from the horrors of newspaper headlines to probing philosophical questions (am I who I really think I am?) is not only unsatisfying but unlikely to stir the teenage demographic.