“My head can’t even hold all the answers I hear every single day.” Deanna (Erika Christensen) is frustrated. Her head, as she says, is full to bursting of ideas, of explanations and rationales. Of all kinds of reasons for a now dead classmate’s decision, months before, to walk into their high school home room and shoot. And she’s tired of adults pressing for answers to questions she can’t even process.
Deanna is actually “lucky.” Shot in the back of her head, she survived the assault (which the film’s reviewers, of course, describe as “Columbine-like,” though the circumstances are dissimilar, save for the dead students), and now suffers any number of post-traumatic symptoms, including severe depression. Deanna first appears in Paul Ryan’s Home Room in her hospital bed, head bandaged and eyes glazed, as she looks up to greet a visitor, bleached-haired, black-lipsticked Alicia (Busy Philipps). From this moment, the film, which was barely released to theaters in September and then on DVD in October, focuses on the girls’ relationship, and while it takes some melodramatic turns toward this end, such interest makes this “Columbine-like” movie unusual.
Abandoned by erstwhile “friends” who can’t handle the stress of speaking with her, and also by her parents, who have never paid enough attention to her, only expected good grades and behavior, Deanna initially welcomes Alicia’s silence and surliness. Assigned by the principal to visit with Deanna, Alicia resents her earnest sunniness and grating naïveté (first thing in the morning: “What kind of drugs do they have you on here? How can you already be this peppy?”), presuming that this means her pain is not hard enough. And of course, Deanna has her own stacked up layers of anguish and anger, to be revealed slowly over the course of the film’s 131 minutes.
For just one thing, Alicia witnessed the shootings, pushed back into the corner of the room; this much is shown in the film’s unsurprising opening moments. A wailing siren and chopper echo over a black screen, soon combined with heavy breathing as the scene comes into view: blood on the walls, an officer in TAC gear, a predictable transition to “five hours after,” where Alicia, safety pins in her ears and hair dyed jet black, sits in the cops’ interrogation room while detectives stand in the dark, outside the two-way mirror, to recap: She was standing next to the “perpetrator” when a cop shot him dead. “It was messy… We brought her straight here, but she’s hardly spoken a word.” And it’s no wonder: they think she’s part of it, as she has a “file,” for shoplifting. Alicia’s not impressed. She glances up, briefly, “Can I bum a smoke?”
Martin Van Zant (Victor Garber) introduces himself, Chief Detective for the County. “You and the suspect in question were acquainted, is that correct?” His partner plays less-good cop: “In point of fact, this young man’s grades were very good. And that’s always the weirdest part about these things. Common sense would have you think that the troubled kid would pull stuff like this, the kid with the temper but it never happens like that, does it? It’s never the bully.” Alicia sighs, offscreen, “Of course not.” Right. This icy-blue-eyed cop, he’s never going to get it.
Indeed, this exchange makes clear the film’s other concern, apart from how kids deal with violence and distress, and that is the increasingly thorny relations between generations, the dissonance between their expectations, of each other and themselves. For one thing, “home room” no longer means safety and routine, but a daily risk (as Van Zandt so pithily puts it, “School’s no place for kids anymore”). And for another, knowledge and anticipation can’t be measured (when her father asks her if she “knew” the kids involved, shooter and victims, she sighs, “I knew all of them”).
The police investigation — centered on Alicia, as the cops feel they need someone to blame, for “the families” — is the film’s weakest aspect. As good as Garber can be (see, for instance, his work as Syd’s father in Alias), here he’s burdened with a solemnly one-dimensional role (apparently, he has his own “history,” a cop’s death on his watch, but it barely registers in his supposed sympathy for the “suspected” Alicia). He bumbles about, wondering why parents don’t know (or even seem to care) more about their distraught children, but he mostly serves as embodiment of the film’s silly maguffin: accusing Alicia is never a plausible plot turn.
And if the girls’ developing friendship has its overwrought moments: “This isn’t one your fucking slumber parties where we paint each other’s fingernails and have pillow fights!” Alicia cuts loose early on; and a couple of visits later, Deanna suggests that she tutor Alicia in English. “You’re failing your native language?” she asks, pretending to be coy and inciting Alicia’s all-purpose rejoinder: “Fuck you.”
Eventually, no surprise, the girls bond big-time, partly because Deanna discovers something about Alicia’s tragedies, and partly because they share an appreciation of the Go-Gos’ “Our Lips Are Sealed.” Their evolution, even when it turns trite, is compelling for the gutsy performances by Christensen and Philipps, but also for the film’s grasp of the girls’ particular experiences. By turns brave, self-protectively mean, and generous beyond adults’ comprehension, they demonstrate that “answers” can’t be simple and that a “Columbine-like” shooting is only the surface of what goes on for kids.