"I used to love hanging out in the rain...I'd watch the flowers. Some would get crushed, but some would burst back up."
Can a movie be a poem? The Life Before Her Eyes says yes, and the result is a hypnotic blend of emotion and imagery that uses simple yet memorable metaphors to help tell its tragic tale. If you've seen director Vadim Perelman's fantastic first feature (House of Sand and Fog), you have an idea of the gut-wrenching ride in store.
Hillcrest High student Diana (Evan Rachel Wood) aches to get out of Briar Hill and start life away from her structured school. She spends most of her time with best friend Maureen (Eva Amurri), and the two click despite being polar opposites: Diana is a fearless free spirit who indulges in more vices than her church-going friend, who wouldn't mind having eight kids and settling down in their hometown. But as the end of the school year approaches, something shatters their world: While in the bathroom before class, they hear gunshots and screams. The girls are further frightened when the door opens, leading to a chilling interaction that we slowly see more of as the film progresses.
Fast forward 15 years, and adult Diana (Uma Thurman) is struggling to keep it together on the anniversary week of the massacre. Now an art history teacher with a professor husband (Brett Cullen) and daughter (Gabrielle Brennan) of her own, she seems to be struggling with survivor's guilt. Diana is also concerned about precocious daughter Emma, who starts to exhibit some of mom's not-so-cute traits. As the memorial ceremony inches closer, Diana starts to question what she has become as guilt and sadness take over.
As her story unfolds, we are repeatedly taken back to her high school life before the tragedy. Diana and Maureen have a strong bond and grow closer through difficult times--including their own fights. Diana goes through some self-loathing brought on by her promiscuous behavior, at the same time challenging Maureen to break out of her own shell: "You think you can say no to the world? It's not there to say no to." We are also repeatedly brought back to the school bathroom, where we see more and more of that unforgettable moment.
The less said about the film's story, the better. It unfolds with a tragic beauty that had me transfixed from the opening credits. Perelman--working with accomplished cinematographer Pawel Edelman and production designer Maia Javan--has created a tranquil landscape with simple yet stunning scene composition, elements that belie the characters' torment. Nature is its own character here, as images of flowers, bugs, plants, water, weather and wildlife hint at ideas of life and death, sadness and serenity. There's beauty everywhere, but it's tinged with terror.
The film is liquid motion, a fluid, ethereal journey that packs an emotional punch. It demands your attention through every frame, and leaves you with an unforgettable ache as it explores friendship and love, guilt and grief. A lot of the credit for that feat goes to the outstanding performances of Wood and Amurri, who create an amazingly real, believable bond born from Emil Stern's nuanced screenplay (adapted from Laura Kasischke's novel). The film is a feast for the eyes and the heart, and works beautifully on more than one level. It has me under its spell, and repeated viewings are in my future. Simply surrender to The Life Before Her Eyes...it's a journey you won't soon forget.
The 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer is a beauty, and fits the film's tranquil tone perfectly. In the bonus material, Perelman notes that they intentionally used different color schemes for various sequences. Some scenes are warmer, while others are cool, with super-saturated macro flower photography injected at various points to give your eyes a feast of color. Throughout, it's a solid effort that keeps you involved.
This film isn't meant to be an onslaught for the ears. Like the story, the 5.1 track is subtle. Relying on James Horner's score and small touches like the sound of water, it enhances the experience perfectly. Also available is a 2.0 track and Spanish subtitles.
Leading the way is the surprisingly comprehensive making-of feature Flashback: Behind The Life Before Her Eyes (53:39). The piece includes thoughts from all the leading actors as well as director Vadim Perelman, production designer Maia Javan, producer Aimée Peyronnet, novelist Laura Kasischke and co-producer Ian McGloin (sadly, no input from screenwriter Emil Stern, but still a fabulous collection of people). The feature is broken into 12 segments, including ones that focus on the story, the script-to-screen process, casting, collaboration, the director, visuals and a few segments that focus on specific shoots, including the bathroom sequence.
It's an engaging watch, full of interesting comments and challenges. "It was so beautifully constructed and so beautifully poetic," says Perelman of Kasischke's novel. "It was magically written." He notes that themes of love, duty, loyalty and self-preservation were all important. He knew that unlike his first (linear) film, this one was far from a slam-dunk, and he enjoyed the challenge of translating the metaphors and images to the screen. He also notes how four real-life school shootings transpired while they were filming, and he used images from Columbine to help "coach" his extras during one scene. "It opened our eyes...but it's not a film about school shootings," he says. "An event happens, and it's like a pebble being thrown into a pond--waves radiate away from it in both directions, into the past and into the future, and that's kind of what this film is about."
Thurman and Wood both praise the screenplay, saying the relationship and dialogue between the young friends was incredibly realistic: "To get a piece of material that observes life so eloquently and gracefully is really unusual," Thurman says, later making a fascinating admission--one that many viewers may agree with, possibly affecting your opinion/enjoyment of the film--and an observation about her performance. Wood also poses a question you'll ask yourself repeatdly during the film: "What would I do?"
An informative audio commentary with Perelman and Javan expands upon many of the ideas in the documentary, and adds more insights. Five deleted scenes (11:57) are an interesting watch (all in lower quality video), although they were probably wise exclusions. The alternate ending (12:51) is mostly the same footage edited differently (I prefer the one in the film), and the Eva Amurri Casting Tape (3:47) shows the actress reading one of the more challenging scenes with (the unseen) Wood. Also included is Reflections Back and Beyond (11:02), a collection of interviews I don't want to say too much about. A flower photo gallery, flower video montage (2:50) and trailers for other releases round out the solid batch of extras.
A fluid film with a story that blends tranquility with tension, The Life Before Her Eyes is art come to life. Using simple visual metaphors to help convey the pain and grief of a woman trying to come to terms with a horrible incident from high school, it features heartfelt performances, a grounded script and subtle yet striking scene composition. It's a film that works on a few levels, a subtle, emotionally moving piece that stays with you long after the credits roll. Surrender to its spell. Highly Recommended.