[Screen It]

(2003) (Alex Frost, Eric Deulen) (R)

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Drama: As an average day unfolds at a high school, two students prepare to embark on a Columbine-style shooting rampage.
It's an ordinary day at an ordinary Oregon high school. Photographer Elias (ELIAS MCCONNELL) is out taking shots, lifeguard Nathan (NATHAN TYSON) is planning on leaving school early with his girlfriend, Carrie (CARRIE FINKLEA), and bulimic friends Brittany (BRITTANY MOUNTAIN), Jordan (JORDAN TAYLOR) and Nicole (NICOLE GEORGE) are gossiping and complaining about others.

Acadia (ALICIA MILES) arrives for her class on gay issues, John (JOHN ROBINSON) tries to cope with having an alcoholic father (TIMOTHY BOTTOMS), nerdy Michelle (KRISTEN HICKS) is reprimanded for wearing long pants to gym class and Alex (ALEX FROST) must put up with the abuse of others.

As he and his friend Eric (ERIC DEULEN) plot their revenge against those who've wronged them, none of the students are remotely aware about how their lives are suddenly going to change.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
Elephants are, by their vary nature, extremely large, heavy and occasionally quite loud mammals. Accordingly, they're very hard to ignore if one is within the vicinity of one. Someone, way back when, thus decided they'd be good metaphors for obvious problems that people purposefully ignore. Since then, they have made it into sayings and stories about people and society's refusal to see, address and/or solve such problems.

One of the more looming ones is how American teens are becoming so disillusioned with themselves, others, society and life that they feel as if they're forced to find a remedy in the form of some drastic measures. Some end up killing themselves, while others turn their violence toward others.

Writer/director Gus Van Sant ("Finding Forrester," "Good Will Hunting") has decided to tackle that very issue and problem in the symbolically titled "Elephant." A fictitious look at an ordinary day at an ordinary Portland, Oregon high school, the film - winner of the Palme d'Or and Best Director prizes at this year's Cannes Film Festival -- will obviously draw comparisons to the fatal and fateful shootings back in 1999 when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold gunned down classmates before turning their weapons on themselves.

Those who may object to Van Sant using that tragedy as source material or feel that he's dishonoring the dead or simply trying to make a film just to be sensationalistic will obviously be missing the point. There's no glorification on hand of either the act or perpetrators, and the shootings and events leading up to them aren't present for any sort of "entertainment" value.

Instead, the filmmaker is going for a realistic, slice of life look and partial examination of such an event. Rather than taking an active stance in investigating the causes and effects of such behavior - like Michael Moore did in "Bowling For Columbine" - the filmmaker simply shows a cross-section of student life - of both the shooters and their victims - that leads up to such a horrific act.

Enlisting real students to play the parts, the film is something of a hypnotic and ultimately rather disturbing experience. Rather than building up the characters with any sort of dramatic story or subplot, we watch them - in near voyeur mode - as they go about their daily activities. At first, the effect is rather maddening as Van Sant simply follows some of the characters for long periods of time where next to nothing - other than walking along the school grounds, for instance - occurs.

While anyone who knows or figures out what the film is about will feel a growing sense of tension and apprehension as the film unfolds, those early moments are definite momentum and patience killers. With the film clocking in at just over 80 minutes, Van Sant obviously couldn't cut out or shorten such scenes without ending up with a less than feature length film. In addition, one gets the sense that he didn't want to trivialize the material by adding superfluous dramatic elements.

Yet, at some point, and despite me knowing exactly what he was doing and where the manipulation was headed, the simple storytelling technique started to work on me. Although we're never really allowed to care that much for the potential victims - beyond them being just that - I found myself slowly but surely being lulled into the pending maelstrom with a sense of dread and fear for them.

Van Sant eventually gets around to adding a little directorial flair to the proceedings by playing around with time and having the various students' stories and paths cross. After we meet and then watch one character's story, the clock rewinds and we watch another who interacts with or simply passes by the first or some other previous character or storyline.

It's obviously nothing new as far as filmmaking is concerned - Tarantino has made a career out of doing the same - but it's a nice and actually needed touch to prevent the viewer from burning out via boredom and/or frustration.

Despite giving them only a limited amount of material with which to work, Van Sant elicits some decent performances from his cast. That's particularly impressive considering none had any sort of previous professional acting experience save for the likes of Timothy Bottoms ("Blue Sky," "The Last Picture Show") and a few others playing the adults.

John Robinson is believable playing a student who's upset with his father being an alcoholic, while Elias McConnell convincingly plays the school photographer. It's Eric Deulen and especially Alex Frost, however, who are most impressive. That's somewhat by default since they play the troubled shooters, but they undeniably bring a palpable realism to their parts that makes them far scarier than fictitious serial killers and the like.

If there's one other complaint or simple observation that many will probably note, it's that Van Sant doesn't really examine the issue or try to come up with any answers or explanations. That's obviously the point, but some may question the reasoning beyond dropping brief clues - violent video games, a Hitler documentary on TV, even a same sex kiss between the two killers in the shower before their shooting spree - without doing anything more with them.

The explanation, I'll assume, is that there are many potential reasons, but no definitive answers to what makes certain young people go over the edge. If anything, Van Sant has certainly drawn attention to the big, foreboding and needing to be seen pachyderm that's potentially lurking in many of our homes and/or schools. Disturbingly hypnotic, "Elephant" might not be a great film, but it's intriguing and made well enough to rate a 6.5 out of 10.

Reviewed October 28, 2003 / Posted November 7, 2003

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