Movie Review: The Life Before Her Eyes
By Sid Smith, Chicago Tribune Critic
"The Life Before Her Eyes" is beautiful, horrifying, exasperating and just plain weird.
It also boasts a surprise ending almost as startling as the one in "The Sixth Sense." But while all that might seem to be warm-up to a recommendation, this movie by Vadim Perelman, the gifted director of "House of Sand and Fog," is a disappointment. It's too clever by half, too facile in its use of sensationalist headline material, too far-fetched in its psychological fancy.
There is a gripping, harrowing saga of a Columbine-like high school shooting, but then too many other hot-button issues are crafted into the story too, including abortion, faith and adultery. Exquisitely crafted, it's likely to leave viewers frustrated, confused or simply feeling empty, a cinematic Rubik's cube that, when finally opened, makes you wonder why you went to all the trouble.
The story, from Laura Kasischke's novel, looks at the same woman at two points in her life separated by 15 years. Diana, played at age 17 by Evan Rachel Wood ("Across the Universe"), is in the school bathroom with her best friend, Maureen (Eva Amurri, daughter of Susan Sarandon), when shooting and screaming erupts outside. A teen gunman bursts in, telling the young women he'll shoot one but not both of them. Though we soon learn he was in fact responsible for a school massacre, the actual resolution of the bathroom scene isn't revealed until the end of the movie.
Meanwhile, the film also follows Diana 15 years later, now played by Uma Thurman, still struggling to come to terms with the shooting. She's anxious about the upcoming memorial for the killings, she's struggling now as a teacher herself, and she's plagued with problems in her family, notably her daughter's disturbing, rebellious behavior - behavior that reminds her of her own errant youth.
Shifting back and forth between the two time periods, the movie explores her character, then and now. As a teen, with a single mom and modest circumstances, she defies convention, disdains her studies, breaks rules and urges Maureen to join her misbehavior.
Diana sleeps with a sleazy older man and has an abortion. Maureen is still a virgin and takes her religion seriously, though she's sympathetic to Diana and willing to indulge in her more harmless temptations, such as using a neighbor's pool illicitly when they're out of town. They are the good girl and bad girl teaming up, linked by their status as outsiders, while Diana shows glimmers of yearning for a more conventional life.
Perelman elicits quiet, well-crafted performances from Thurman, Amurri and especially Wood, the attractive actress so good at convincingly mixing youthful allure, vulnerability and defiance. His slow-moving camera glides past all sorts of images in close-up, lush looks at flower blossoms, cascading water droplets and even rotten food and dirty dishes - images that become part of a pattern of heavy-handed symbols.
For all the sensitivity and realism in the portrayals, the events take an annoying, manipulative turn - how many ills can credibly besiege one poor woman? Diana is something of a female Job. Certainly, religious issues are tossed into the mix. Diana and Maureen discuss God and the afterlife, and Diana's abortion provides a whole subplot airing the right-to-life debate.
But, in the end, for all its sheen and beauty, for all its ingenious plot complexity, "The Life" is too obvious and artificial to be believed.
MPAA rating: R (for violent and disturbing content, language and brief drug use).
Running time: 1:30.
Starring: Uma Thurman (Diana as an adult); Evan Rachel Wood (Diana as a teen); Eva Amurri (Maureen); Brett Cullen (Paul).
Directed by Vadim Perelman; written by Emil Stern; photographed by Pawel Edelman; edited by David Baxter; music by James Horner; production design by Maia Javan; produced by Perelman, Aimee Peyronnet and Anthony Katagas. A Magnolia Pictures release.