The Life Before Her Eyes (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★
Nearing the end of their high school career, best friends Maureen (Eva Amurri) and Diana (Evan Rachel Wood) go inside the girls’ restroom to freshen up and talk about how excited they are for the future. Their conversation is interrupted when they hear students screaming in the hallway. At first, Diana is convinced it is only a prank—just another senior having too much fun. But then they start to hear gunshots. Diana, horrified, claims to know the identity of the shooter. She says Michael (John Magaro) spoke about his plan to kill everybody, but she chose not to report his threat because she was not convinced that he would go actually go through with it.
“The Life Before Her Eyes” surprises slowly then suddenly. The screenplay by Emil Stern stirs the pot, adds, and mixes the right dramatic ingredients to create a tragic story about trauma and how the past manages to cling onto the present and future like stepping on gum. But that is not all that is happening. Underneath is a story about a life in a standstill. Propelling us into Diana’s future, we watch adult Diana (Uma Thurman) struggle through an extremely difficult week: the anniversary of the shooting in Hillview High School.
The camaraderie between Diana and Maureen feels, looks, and sounds credible. There is a complexity to their relationship and it is established through a symbiosis. Even though Diana is the rebellious teen and Maureen is more conservative, they bond not only due to the fact that both of them come from the poorer side of town but also because they balance each other’s wavelengths. Wood and Amurri are so natural around one another, I often felt as though I was watching two real friends just hanging out.
Thurman, on the other hand, is not as believable playing a mother. Although the point is that her character’s trauma has hardened her over time, sometimes I felt she comes off too hard. When the actor gives someone a sharp look, it communicates mean instead of tough. There is a great disparity between Thurman and Wood’s performances—too great that it feels like they are two completely different characters. Perhaps another performer who can pull off tough—but not mean—might have enhanced the flow especially since the picture jumps back and forward in time.
Another possible enhancement is to have introduced the so-called surprise early on. The film is based on a novel by Laura Kasischke so eliminating it completely would have compromised the work. However, by having it revealed much early on, it would have had a more defined structure: a drama with a certain point of view. It probably would have felt less gimmicky.
Despite its miscalculations, I enjoyed “The Life Before Her Eyes,” directed by Vadim Perelman, because of the girls’ friendship and it looks great. The twenty-year (or so) difference between the two stories are subtle and so the material allows us to focus on the characters rather than a time period’s eccentricities.