Full disclosure: This movie is about a school shooting. But it didn't have to be. It could have been about any life/death situation that permanently alters our future. I say "our" future, because this film inexorably draws us in to ask ourselves not only: "What would I have done in that situation?" but "What would I have done after that situation?" The fact that "Life" is based on the novel by Laura Kasischke and directed by Vadim Perelman ("House of Sand and Fog," and soon-to-be-released "Atlas Shrugged") are both bonuses. Some of the heavy lifting of working out plot and styling natural dialogue has been done, which allows Perelman to give us lush, meditative sequences that are absolutely essential to the story. "Life" should really be seen on the big screen. Luminous Evan Rachel Wood plays teen wild-child Diana. Her best friend, Maureen, is the utterly believable Eva Amurri (Susan Sarandon's daughter), a shy, non-glamorous, three-dimensional Christian. "Life" is filmed in easy-to-follow flashbacks and flashforwards. Because it's not linear, the viewer never knows what's coming next, and it becomes gently riveting.
The BFF's plan and dream about their futures, but don't we all? They discuss metaphysical subjects (death, God, visions, what if's) as easily as they size up a cute boy. (Kudos to the filmmakers for their spiritual honesty--let's stop pretending teens don't talk about this stuff!) And don't we all? They are visited by tragedies and guilt and traumas they could never foresee and can barely handle. And aren't we all? Although the perspectives are feminine, the real question here is: How can I have a good life? How can I insure that I have a good life? What is a good life? And don't we all ask ourselves these questions? Later, the question becomes: Now what? How do I hang on? Go on? Let go? Honor the past? Forgive myself? The adult Diana is played by Uma Thurman at the top of her game.
Teen Diana answers the question: "What is a good life?" by glib hedonism (and pays the consequences), while Maureen is more prudent, and tries to get Diana to be. However, Diana plunges into life with a fearless, big heart, which Maureen admires. Although opposites, Diana and Maureen's solid friendship withstands everything, even death: "love is stronger than death"--something usually reserved for guys' buddy and war movies.
Although featuring teens, this is not a teen movie per se. Teens will be able to relate to Diana and Maureen, but it will take some life experience to comprehend the depths of their anguish. Not a bad thing to expose mature teens to life's harsher realities in order to engage their "moral imagination." And who's to say teens haven't already endured some pretty terrible events in their lives? Adults will recognize the grim dilemmas and responsibilities of the characters.
Is this a depressing film? No, because beauty overwhelms everything. At the film's core is "lifegiving springs of water" (think the "plastic bag scene" from "American Beauty"). Diana intuits this core through "created things," and Maureen through her vibrant faith. (One ugh note: Maureen--in a religious chat with Diana--concedes that reincarnation might be possible. Ugh.)
As we watch the adult Diana agonize over just about everything, we can relate, and need to remind ourselves that "in weakness power reaches perfection." God is in our weakness, we can stop beating ourselves up. It made me feel bad for Diana and those who don't feel God in their lives as Someone who understands our daily confusion, fear and hesitation--who don't have the comfort of God's friendship in their lives as something to lean on. Heavily. The teens and grown-up teens in "Life" need to cut themselves some slack. As the Nationwide auto insurance commercial says: "Life comes at you fast." Upset with God about your miseries and misfortunes? Try Psalm 89:39-53 where David berates God for breaking their covenant!
The following Gauguin painting of Jacob wrestling with the angel figures into "Life" (Diana becomes an art history teacher). Myteriously, we are called not to fight God but to wrestle with Him in this life. Jacob "prevails," but is left wounded and limping.
There is also an abortion in the film. An ugly, messy abortion that only complicates everything. The abortion is presented so matter-of-factly as the taking of a life that movie reviewers in Toronto wrote this film off as an "anti-abortion screed"! "The Life Before Her Eyes" joins a new tradition of "abortion is not the answer" films: "Knocked Up," "Bella," "The Waitress," "Juno," etc., but is not really about abortion any more than it's about a school shooting. In less capable hands, this would have been an issue-crammed, multi-themed movie that bit off more than it could chew, but that's just not the case. It takes some reflection to find the heart of the film (and it may be different for each viewer), but it certainly isn't any of the "issues"--it's bigger than all the issues put together, a kind of poking at the mysterious connected root of them all--and smaller than all the issues: you just have to take this film personally.
The audience in my screening theater had very sharp and mixed reactions. The "issues" made people uncomfortable. Some felt manipulated. The "Sixth Sense"-like ending was a conundrum. "Life," no doubt, will be "controversial." But for me, the movie transcended judgmentalism to become a universal portrayal of each one's personal experience of PTSD. Yes, everyone has experienced multiple traumas in life, and we're all dealing with the fallout to varying degrees. As Flannery O'Connor said: Anyone who has survived childhood has plenty to write about for a lifetime.
The graphicness of the violence and sex is minimal. My one complaint is that, in the life of the adult Diana, the dramatic events are just a little too perfectly timed, one following right after the other. Of course, sometimes life is like that, but still. Some heavy-handed symbolism and dialogue (water, cougars, "conscience")--but very dismissable in the overall scheme. Oh yes, and the nuns are a bit stern.
There is no formula for warding off sorrow. It will find each and every one of us. But, like Our Lady of Sorrows, by embracing it, we discover the Man of Sorrows, the Suffering Servant, who is also the Resurrection and the Life.
The "Theology of the Body" moment? There were many! But classic was the juxtaposition of Maureen coming out of Sunday church and meeting with Diana: they talk about "speaking in tongues," "heaven" and "sex" all in the same breath. They are so close to the truth here, and yet a tension between the physical and spiritual is set up throughout the story between Maureen and Diana: "the virgin and the whore," as they joke about it. It made me think of Madonna who said recently: "The material world betrayed me." So now she has gone all spiritual (Kabbalah). But it's the integration of the material and the spiritual that's the glorious human reality.