“It was real,” insists Maureen (Eva Amurri), “A vision of God.” Remembering the thrill of her most recent religious experience, Maureen hopes to move her best friend Diana (Evan Rachel Wood) to share her inspiration. But Diana remains unimpressed. “Sounds like you were hit by a car,” she laughs, “and fucking passed out.”
As close and trusting as the girls’ friendship may be, they remain rather too neatly opposed: Maureen imagines them starring in “The Virgin and the Whore, this fall on the WB.” And indeed, when they’re in high school, in The Life Before Her Eyes, there is a WB. Restless seniors at Hillview High some 15 years ago, they can’t know what’s in store for them, which is the devastating horror of a school shooting, seven years before Columbine.
Based on Laura Kasischke’s 2002 novel, the film leans heavily on these schematic distinctions between Diana and “M” as a means to draw moral lines and raise questions concerning guilt and innocence. As the adult Diana (Uma Thurman) looks back on the trauma, she’s still distraught. Living in the same suburban Connecticut town — so she has to drive by Hillview when she drops offer her young daughter Emma (Gabrielle Brennan) at the parochial school where nuns and tidy uniforms offer a veneer of order and belief, exactly what’s missing from Diana’s daily life. As the anniversary of the massacre comes near, she’s increasingly anxious and unsoothed by her routines — running in the park, teaching art history to bored students, chatting awkwardly with her craggily handsome professor husband, Paul (Brett Cullen). She ponders whether to attend the memorial — a sure-to-be tense affair where students with no connection to this particular past will be playing somber music and hearing solemn speeches. Paul listens to her sweetly, then gets on his bike to ride to work: their life together is strained, but they mean to survive it.
The reasons for Diana’s jumpiness are revealed slowly — so very slowly — and repetitively, such that the film’s “trick” ending is not so much surprising as depressing. It’s not quite survivor’s guilt, though you watch Diana and M enter the bathroom where they will encounter the sweaty-faced, floppy-haired young shooter, Michael (John Magaro) again and again. As Life cuts back and forth between its seeming present-tense scenes and Diana’s memories, Michael poses the question that haunts Diana: he will shoot one of them, he asserts, which one should it be? The transitions are obvious: birds flapping suddenly from trees, close-ups of inchworms and leaves in her garden, a visit with an ex-classmate (Maggie Lacey), now the mother of a child at Emma’s school, who portentously agrees with Diana that nothing has changed in town, “except you.”
For all its structural inelegance (underscored by the repeated intrusion of the Zombies’ “She’s Not There” on car radios or a mailman’s not-chance whistling), Vadim Perelman’s movie is most troubling in the links it makes between the 17-year-old Diana and her older, more burdened self. Young Diana is reckless and angry, indicated by a couple of telling moments (she smokes cigarettes in the girls’ locker room, she mouths off to her mom (Molly Price), she dates Marcus (Oscar Isaac), a local tough and drug dealer with tattoos, a cougar caged in his bedroom, and… wait for it… a scar over his eye.
Diana pays for her bad choices perpetually, in large part through her self-comparisons to M, whose piety she alternately teases and reveres, understanding M as a “good” girl in most every sense. When Diana meets M after church, she asks if anyone spoke “in tongues,” then tells her all about her sexual encounter with Marcus in a swimming pool. For her part, M is alternately poetic (as a child she liked watching flowers respond to the rain, some mashed by the pressure and some “popping back up”) and vaguely envious, wondering if marrying the Christian boy on whom she has a crush will be satisfying. Staying in Hillview seems the worst possible fate, and yet both girls contemplate it repeatedly, as if unable to imagine another option.
The option that the film imagines for them, repeatedly and in slow motion, is the shooting. Assembling familiar images — kids bloodied and tearful, bodies on gurneys, cops in SWAT gear but unable to storm the building, students falling from windows, mothers screaming and held back, ambulances disgorging medical teams — Life is at once clichéd and horrific. In these shots, it shows what you’ve seen before, not what Diana or Maureen might see, not their experiences. Calling up collective fears and resentments, it doesn’t dig into contexts or explore specific effects. Instead, it offers a most prosaic moral framework.