Based on the novel by Laura Kasischke, "The Life Before Her Eyes" is a cumulatively tough and moving drama about a senseless school shooting and the ricochet effect this kind of traumatic event can have on those that lived through it. As directed by Vadim Perelman (2003's "House of Sand and Fog
") and adapted for the screen by first-timer Emil Stern, the film lyrically weaves the past with the present in a dreamlike fashion that, ultimately, is anything but. It all leads up to a whammy of a conclusion that, in less assured hands, might have felt like a gimmick. As presented here, however, the revelations make perfectly cohesive sense and shed light on all that has come before.
If you were suddenly and unexpectedly faced with a life-or-death situation, and given the option between sparing yourself or sacrificing your own life for the promised survival of your best friend, what choice would you make in that very moment? Fifteen years following a grisly high school shooting, Diana (Uma Thurman) is still haunted by this conundrum. An art history teacher living an idyllic life in the same town she grew up in, Diana has a caring husband in Paul (Brett Cullen) and a spirited young daughter in Emma (Gabrielle Brennan). Indeed, she would seem to have it all, but as the anniversary of the shooting approaches and preparations for a memorial begin, Diana can't help but ponder the decisions her teenage self (Evan Rachel Wood) made on that fateful day, and wonder what the future might have held for virtuous best buddy Maureen (Eva Amurri) if she were still here instead of her.
"The Life Before Her Eyes" is more psychological in nature and character-driven than it is plot-centric. The narrative, layering realism with vague surrealistic touches, becomes progressively labyrinthine as the present-day experiences of adult Diana are threaded between flashbacks of wayward teen Diana and her tight relationship with the more straight-laced Maureen. The moment of truththe bathroom confrontation between them and the shooter, classmate Michael Patrick (John Magaro), that left an innocent person deadis recalled several times throughout, unraveling more and more of what occurred. The rest of the time, the horrors of this tragedy loom ominously over the proceedings as Diana and Maureen have no way of knowing what lies ahead for them.
Episodic in nature, the film is really a series of vignetteskey moments and conversations that the older Diana thinks back on as she tries to come to grips with the emotional paralysis she still suffers from a decade and a half later. While a few too many lines of dialogue in the flashbacks are a bit too on the nose, foreshadowing what is to come, the picture luminously draws you into these characters and does a superb job of getting you to actively care about the fates of Diana and Maureen. Their close, and some might say unlikely, bond as friends lies at the core of the film. This key element, intermixed with the symbolic imagery and revelatory structure of the present-day scenes, paves the way for a powerful denouement that blindsides the viewer's expectations.
In what might be her most accomplished performance outside of a Quentin Tarantino movie, to date, Uma Thurman (2006's "My Super Ex-Girlfriend
") is exceptional as Diana, her wide-eyed features and keyed-in vulnerability reminding of a wounded bird unable to take flight. As her younger self, Evan Rachel Wood (2007's "Across the Universe
") continues to perfect her knowledge in essaying troubled, rebellious teenage roles that feel authentic and three-dimensional. Wood's chemistry with Eva Amurri (2004's "Saved!
"), lovable and heartbreaking as Maureen, is the film's most enduring and valuable attribute. Without it, the film's outcome wouldn't hold nearly the same impact that it does.
Palatable for mainstream audiences but independent in mind and spirit, "The Life Before Her Eyes" paints a compelling and thought-provoking picture of not only school violence, but violence in general, and the trickle-down effect that a single moment in time can have on one's whole future. Though not on quite the same level as Gus Van Sant's 2003 masterpiece, "Elephant
," pairing up these two films would make for an ideal double-feature, each one complimenting and enhancing the other on a subject that remains as relevant today as it was nine years ago when the Columbine shootings took place. With an ending that almost demands a second viewing in whole, "The Life Before Her Eyes" is strong, provocative work.