Life Before Her Eyes, The

Reviewed by Tim Grierson

A melodramatic portrait of violence and mourning, The Life Before Her Eyes treads familiar emotional terrain without unearthing any fresh insights. Director Vadim Perelmans disappointing follow-up to his searing tragedy The House of Sand and Fog turns writer Laura Kasischkes novel into an overly precious, pseudo-poetic meditation where the pain of loss is indulged rather than examined.

The narrative of Life Before Her Eyes is divided into two time periods. In the first, 17-year-old rebel Diana (Evan Rachel Wood of “Thirteen” fame) struggles with the constraints of her small-town Connecticut existence, her spirits boosted by her more conservative best friend Maureen (Eva Amurri).

However, their lives take a frightening turn when a fellow student (John Magaro) brings a machine gun to school one day and goes on a killing spree, trapping the two young girls in the bathroom at gunpoint, asking them to decide which of the two will be shot.

Intercut with Dianas teenage days are scenes of her life 15 years later (now played by Uma Thurman), as she anxiously copes with the anniversary of the school massacre. A mother of a rebellious young girl (Gabrielle Brennan) and married to an accomplished professor (Brett Cullen), the adult Diana is still affected by the tragedy in her youth. As the anniversary fast approaches, she begins imagining that students and teachers from her childhood are returning to her present-day life.

Moving liberally back and forth between time frames, Life Before Her Eyes means to dramatize how past traumas weigh on us years after. But while the technique is potentially intriguing, director Perelman and scripter Emil Stern labor to construct an aura of suffocating melancholy, and eventually the saga becomes stifling rather than poignant. Furthermore, because Perelman builds a mystery out of what exactly happened with Diana and the gunman, much of the films running time is given over to offering hints about the encounters resolution, creating only a handful of possible scenarios that all seem too obvious.

Whats surprising is that on the strength of his feature debut, House of Sand and Fog, it would be expected that Perelman could handle this equally delicate material. That film also dealt with impulsive, high-strung characters trapped in seemingly endless cycles of depression and anger, but Perelman was able to keep the necessary distanced perspective. While we understood that the characters in The House of Sand and Fog were occasionally foolish, the movies clear-eyed outlook on the proceedings allowed for sharp commentary on xenophobia, class, and the much-cherished American Dream of owning property.

By comparison, The Life Before Her Eyes submerges itself into the adult Dianas wobbly mindset, resulting in a film that takes itself so seriously that it hardly feels lifelike. Working from Kasischkes novel, Stern peppers the script with expositional bits that ache with meaning: No character reads a poem or delivers a schoolroom lecture that doesnt conveniently correspond with the films themes of guilt and rebirth. In addition, the parallel stories include several rhyming elements such as a certain song or line of dialogue which push too hard to express the connection between the present and the past. In limited doses, such devices could be powerful, but Perelman piles them on to the point of exasperation.

Uma Thurman has the trickiest assignment among the cast, and its sad to report that she flounders. While the adult Diana is unquestionably haunted by the teenage shooting, Thurmans performance overdoes her grieving. The way she jumps at the slightest jolt and walks through her day like a zombie, Thurman draws unfavorable comparisons to the inexperienced teenage actresses who play the victims in mediocre Hollywood slasher films. And since we only see the adult Diana over the span of a few days, its impossible to know if this one-note behavior is normal for her or merely something thats been inspired by the upcoming anniversary of the shooting.

As the teenage Diana, Evan Rachel Wood fares better, largely because shes allowed to pursue a range of emotions. Wood plays the young woman as a free spirit and a bit of a bad girl without overdoing these qualities. As compared to Thurmans portrayal, at least Woods version of Diana displays recognizable human characteristics. Perelman and cinematographer Pawel Edelman frame the younger Dianas existence as sun-drenched ennui, catching the lazy drift of teenage days in a way comparable to what director Gus Van Sant has achieved in recent films like Paranoid Park. Woods soft beauty works to great advantage in such a setting.

As might be expected, there is a surprise waiting once we finally learn the truth about Diana and the school shooting, but the twist doesnt fully satisfy the lingering problems elsewhere. (In fact, it opens up other problems.) Additionally, Perelmans constant returning to Diana and Maureens ordeal with the shooter throughout the film both lessens its impact and adds an almost exploitative feel to the sequence. The Life Before Her Eyes draws parallels to real-life school shootings, but its ineffective execution adds nothing to the real-life pain those tragedies left in their wake.

Credits

Running time: 90 minutes

Director: Vadim Perelman
Production company: 2929 Productions
US distribution: Magnolia Pictures
Producers: Vadim Perelman, Aimee Peyronnet, Anthony Katagas
Executive producers: Todd Wagner, Mark Cuban, Marc Butan
Co-producers: Chase Bailey, Couper Samuelson, Mike Upton, Ian McGloin
Screenplay: Emil Stern (based on the book by Laura Kasischke)
Cinematography: Pawel Edelman
Editor: David Baxter
Production design: Maia Javan
Music: James Horner

Cast

Uma Thurman (Diana as adult)
Evan Rachel Wood (Diana as teen)
Eva Amurri (Maureen)
Brett Cullen (Paul)
Gabrielle Brennan (Emma)
John Magaro (Michael)