Like a well-crafted poem in a college literary journal, Vadim Perelman's big screen adaptation of Laura Kasischke's novel is lovely to look at, compelling to listen to but ultimately too superficial and metaphorically pretentious to do justice to the issues it's supposedly tackling. Which is a shame. Because what could have been a thoughtful meditation on adolescent female angst and male rage, is undermined by self-satisfied psychobabble and a narrative sleight-of-hand that reduces the story to a Lifetime TV version of Jacob's Ladder (a far superior movie).
Bouncing between two timelines, The Life Before Her Eyes labors mightily to interlock imagery and narratives set 15 years apart as emotionally damaged Diana (Uma Thurman), on the anniversary of her high school's worst tragedy, relives the fateful weeks beforehand for her 17-year-old self (Evan Rachel Wood) and best friend Maureen (Eva Amurri). What starts with bathroom badinage about dating boys and longing for their lives "to begin" quickly twists into Columbine-like horror as mop-headed weirdo Michael (John Meguro) bursts in on the girls after massacring a dozen or so students and teachers. In true Sophie's Choice fashion, he puts his machine gun to their heads and asks: Which one of them should live and which one should die.
It's melodramatic stuff to be sure, but Perelman, who impressed with his delicate debut, The House Of Sand And Fog, indulges in, rather than examines, the pain, mourning and violence in his story. What, at first glance, seems to be a meditation on the traumatic weight of the past turns ghoulishly portentous, and dramatically ponderous. It's all so overripe and overwrought. Rain weeps from the sky over and over again, the teens swim in slow motion, James Horner's ominous music thunders then moans as screenwriter Emil Stern ties the shifting narrative into impenetrable knots, shuffling events so randomly that we're never quite sure what happened to the girls and when.
Except for the shootings. There the carnage is lovingly rendered in meticulously composed images and strategically parsed clues that accumulate with each replay of the final confrontation, building to what Perelman and Stern no doubt believed would be an "A-ha!" moment for the audience. Unfortunately anyone who's seen Stay, The Sixth Sense or the aforementioned Jacob's Ladder will feel like they're watching a ravishing march toward a foregone conclusion.
Ultimately, it's the women who keep things interesting. Despite Perelman's convulsing plotlines, Thurman, Wood and Amurri show us strong, sensitive women struggling with real vulnerabilities. Whether it's the emotional fragility of "bad-girl" Diana, the quiet but severe Maureen or Uma with her struggle to keep it together as her life starts to fracture, all three actresses elevate otherwise unworthy scenes. Wood, in particular, is growing into a charismatic and graceful actress who understands that it's the small details rather than the big moments that make the character. And Thurman — who rarely gets to demonstrate her acting chops — deserves an award for convincingly chasing her daughter through the woods as she screams her name over and over again in the film's most hackneyed scene.
Water imagery. Flower imagery. Dialogue that's aggressively symbolic and oh-so important, there's no getting around that The Life Before Her Eyes shamelessly cashes in on high school gun violence to give its subject undeserved weight. All the tasteful compositions and "meaningful" exchanges in the world can't compensate for the bad taste of ghoulishly exploiting real-life tragedy for a gimmicky plot twist.
Showing at the Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].