Sign up for our free newsletter
Gus Van Sant’s Elephant isn’t the proverbial one in the living room. Rather, the director titled his fictionalized account of a Columbine-style high-school shooting after the parable in which a group of blind men each feel a different part of a pachydermtrunk, ear, leg, etc. Each, of course, becomes convinced that he has the correct sense of the animal as a whole. Indeed, Van Sant does offer various fractured perspectives on his subject matter. But he also refrains from judgment completelywhich seems more akin to an obvious, hulking problem of the living-room persuasion.
After a lingering shot of a clear autumn sky, the film follows several students going about their day in a Portland, Ore., high school: John (John Robinson), who gets in trouble for being tardy when he spends the morning looking after his drunk dad; Eli (Elias McConnell), a polite photographer who scours the campus for candid shots; Nate (Nathan Tyson) and his girlfriend, Carrie (Carrie Finklea), who plan to go off-campus for lunch; Michelle (Kristen Hicks), who’s reprimanded for not wearing shorts to gym; and Brittany (Brittany Mountain), Jordan (Jordan Taylor), and Nicole (Nicole George), who make up a gossipy clique. From Michelle’s nerd to Nate’s jock, all clichés are coveredalong with a new post-Columbine archetype: the militants, Alex (Alex Frost) and Eric (Eric Deulen).
Unlike the recently released Zero Day, which tells the same story by using the killers’ video diary, Elephant focuses on the other students. The movie’s tag line describes its subject as “an ordinary high school day”but the unnatural calm that permeates these halls is unmistakably one that’s before the storm. Van Sant amps up the sense of foreboding by focusing on pedestrian activity and favoring endless tracking shots of the backs of students walking through the school’s labyrinthine corridors. Conversations, which were largely improvised by the mostly nonprofessional actors, are minimal, mostly overheard in snippets or briefly engaged in by whomever the camera’s trained on. In this school, there’s never the din of a between-classes rush.
The effect is both mesmerizing and frustrating. These students seem already flattened by events that haven’t yet occurred. Van Sant’s sparing use of musicBeethoven’s “Für Elise” alternating between Sonatas No. 14 and 2combines with the audience’s knowledge of what’s ahead to lend an atmosphere so elegiac that it borders on ponderous, especially in one extended scene of various activities on the school’s outdoor field. But just when you’re feeling lulled by the camera’s patient observation of the uneventful, the director revisits certain interactions from another character’s perspectivea trick that encourages you to scan the scenes for anything you might have missed the first time. Inevitably, there’s nothing there, but the lack nevertheless deepens your anticipation of the inevitable.
Another light touch, however, is maddening: Elephant’s portrait of Alex and Eric is a mere sketch. The two are shown hanging out in Alex’s suburban home, one playing a sniper video game and the other a piano. They order weapons off the Internet, watch footage of Hitler on TV, and, in a confusing moment with no context or
resolution, kiss in the shower before heading out for their day of violence. Alex is shown getting something thrown at him during a class, but Van Sant otherwise abstains from suggesting reasons for their murderous actions and the flipness with which they execute them: Alex speaks of being able to “pick ’em off, one by one” and advises Eric to “more importantly, just have fun, man!”
The actual shootings, despite their lack of gore, are suitably sickening to watch as students fear for their lives in their school’s brightly lit rooms. “Eenie, meenie, miney, mo,” the phrase uttered by one of the killers as he terrorizes Nate and Carrie in the cafeteria’s walk-in freezer, suggests the message that such tragedies are random and unexplainable. But that’s as close as Van Sant comes to theorizing in Elephant. Though understandablethere are, naturally, no easy answersthe decision also makes you wonder what the point is: Surely Van Sant meant to do more than conjure 81 minutes’ worth of chilling atmosphere.
Oscar-nominated filmmaker Liz Garbus, by contrast, attempts to explain everything in Girlhood, her documentary about two teenagers in a Baltimore juvenile-detention center. The film follows the progress of Shanae, 12, and Megan, 16, from 1999 to 2002, as they move from incarceration to halfway houses to eventual freedom. If the social and economic reasons for their troubles are less clear than the actions that landed each girl in jail, Garbus at least offers them up for debate.
Shanae, a sweet-faced African-American, grew up with a mother who worked around the clock to save for a move to a better neighborhood. With little supervision, however, Shanae was gang-raped at age 10 and pregnant at 11. Soon after, she ended up killing a friend in a knife fight. Megan, an attractive girl of undefined descent, was raised partly by her grandmother after her mother continued to prostitute herself for drugs after Megan was born. By the time she was 14 and placed in the juvenile facility for attacking another girl with a box cutter, she’d been in 10 different foster homes. The film shows Megan having occasional contact with her mother, who floats in and out of prisons, but the girl obviously considers herself largely alone in the world.
Garbus, shooting with a sometimes unsteady digital camera, captures interviews with each inmate, the detention center’s staff, and the girls’ families, as well as footage of Shanae’s and Megan’s day-to-day lives. Though some of their time at the facility feels implausibly sunnythe worst offense discussed is Megan spending unauthorized time in someone else’s roomGarbus draws parallels between the girls’ lives that strongly suggest an inescapable fate. Both girls seem to be caught in a cycle of repeated mistakes: Shanae’s father was also involved in criminal activity when he was young, and Megan’s great-grandmother apparently abandoned her daughter and died before a reconciliation could be achieved. In Megan’s case, the juvenile-justice system is also at fault: Probation officers fail to follow up on her whereabouts after she’s released.
Garbus doesn’t finger-point much, though. For much of the documentary, she simply allows her subjects to tell their own stories. It’s in these compelling interviews that we get to witness the girls’ crucial differences over the three-year period. At age 12, Shanae may coolly ask, “Am I supposed to beat myself up over it?” regarding her friend’s murder. But by 15, she has gained enough intelligence, self-awareness, and sense of regret to suggest a triumph of the rehabilitation system, even after she undergoes a heartbreaking setback. Megan, meanwhile, despite her generally more genial disposition, turns shockingly apathetic after she’s released: While again out on the streets, she attests that “this is what was supposed to happen.” Garbus knows better, however, and she weaves Girlhood’s stories deftly enough to show that though similar circumstances may shape two girls’ lives, predestination is what you make of it. CP