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Flowers shouldn’t make you angry. But by the time the 100th blossom appears in The Life Before Her Eyes, you may start to get a little tetchy. Vadim Perelman offers a warning of the flora to come in his drama’s languid opening credits, with the camera going in and out of focus as it oh-so-sensitively pans across dew-kissed bulbs. For a while afterward, similar shots of blooms and water and distorted views repeat themselves here and there. Then the director makes like a poet on Provigil and starts dumping symbolism by the bucket until you can’t help but sit there, Beavis & Butt-Head-like, thinking, “This means something.”
A more appropriate response would be to call bullshit. For a while, though, you can go along with Perelman’s follow-up to 2003’s well-received House of Sand and Fog, certain that its time-jumping story (adapted from Laura Kasischke’s novel) about a high-school shooting and its effect on the survivors does, in fact, mean something. First-time scripter Emil Stern begins by showing a day in the lives of wild-child Diana (Evan Rachel Wood) and her more conservative best friend, Maureen (Eva Amurri). The two giggle about drugs and boys and admire themselves in their suburban school’s bathroom mirror when they hear screams and gunshots out in the hall. Diana knows instantly who the killer is—the classmate told her his plans the day before, but she took it as a joke—and soon they’re facing the kid (John Magaro) and a very big gun.
Outside, there’s chaos, and a yell from Diana’s mother propels us 15 years into the future, though the grown Diana (Uma Thurman) looks as gape-mouthed and freaked as if the incident did indeed happen only seconds before. (In the book, the leap is a full two decades; the idea that Thurman is instead 32 here is nearly as ridiculous as her character’s hyperfragility.) Diana is an art teacher with a devoted husband (Brett Cullen) and a daughter, Emma (Gabrielle Brennan), who despite her pretty hair bows and parochial-school education is allegedly a “handful” like her mom. But Diana is more concerned about the anniversary of the massacre than her little girl’s misbehavior. She stares at old photos. She stares at the wall. She’s unsettled when Emma asks her what “conscience” means, as if the child unleashed a string of expletives. She is Damaged.
Flashbacks—which become increasingly abrupt—show more of what happened on that day and a brief time beforehand, capturing Diana’s concern about being branded a slut and thoughts about what the future holds. The film is best when it stays in school: Wood’s and Amurri’s characters aren’t 17 going on 40 but believably fumbling toward adulthood in Gap wear that would make a Gossip Girl Twitter her thumbs off. Even when facing death, the young actresses communicate terror without resorting to Thurman’s theatricality. Perelman is similarly understated: A few quiet glimpses throughout the school, slain students and teachers throughout, is enough to convey devastation.
The story’s sudden anti-abortion message, however, is not so subtle, though that and the rest of the film’s intended thoughtfulness about lives cut short, etc., becomes absolutely meaningless when the plot makes a hard turn into potboiler territory. It could be argued that it’s best to know as little as possible about The Life Before Her Eyes before going in; its final chapters are relatively clever if you haven’t read the book and you’re not expecting them. Then again, a surprise has to be more than just well-executed to be impressive. More likely, you’ll feel frustration, and by the final reel it’ll have nothing to do with daffodils.