Tag Archives: School Shootings

Book Review: A Mother’s Reckoning by Sue Klebold

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Rating: B/ Reading A Mother’s Reckoning, I was reminded of a line in the novel Little Children by Tom Perrotta where May, the mother of a middle-aged child molester, knows on some level that her son is a monster, but she finds that she cannot flip the switch in her mind and stop loving him. Books don’t get more ripped from the headlines than this memoir by Sue Klebold, the mother of Dylan Klebold, one of the shooters at Columbine. As everybody who doesn’t live under a rock knows already, Columbine was one of the first large scale and highly publicized school shootings in the U.S. Continue reading Book Review: A Mother’s Reckoning by Sue Klebold

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Book Review: The Life Before Her Eyes by Laura Kasischke

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Rating: B/ Considering that I had already seen the excellent film adaptation a few years before, this novel held few surprises for me, least of all the twist ending alluded to in it’s lyrical title. So it’s a good thing that Laura Kasischke focuses more in her writing on lyricism and less on plot. With the lovely, vivid writing, I still felt like I was getting something new out of the experience of reading the book even though I pretty much knew the story. The Life Before her Eyes is a good book, not a great one. The writing can be meandering and sentimental while at the same time being lush and gorgeous, starting off the bat with a Sophie’s Choice type situation and gradually touching on aging, sorrow, and regret in a bittersweet manner. Continue reading Book Review: The Life Before Her Eyes by Laura Kasischke

We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)

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Rating: B/  Oh, Franklin. you should have worn the damned condom!

Okay, so maybe Eva Khachaturian wasn’t meant to be a mother. But is she responsible for making her son a monster? Society seems to think so. In the wake of a horrific attack orchestrated by Kevin, a sadistic fifteen-year-old psychopath, Eva (Tilda Swinton) is heckled on the street and sometimes outright attacked by people who lost their loved ones in the tragedy.

    In a swirl of fever dream-like memories, past becomes present, and Eva remembers when her husband Franklin (John C. Reilly) and kids Kevin and Celie (Ezra Miller and Ashley Gerasimovich) were still with her. Eva never seemed to really want Kevin, a vile, evil, perpetually incontinent child turned killer teen who mind-fucked his mother from a very early age, but the real question is whether Eva could stop the direction her son was going.

   Franklin, a happy guy in denial of Kevin’s true nature, condemns Eva for not connecting with her little moppet, and Kevin simultaneously gaslights Eva and turns Eva and her well-meaning but dopey husband against each other. Kevin might seem like a child of Satan or some other supernatural incarnate, but really he’s like thousands of other children in the world who really don’t seem to have a conscience- and who better to blame than the boy’s own mother?

Anyone who has seen filmmaker Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher knows she has a propensity for both beautiful cinematography and grueling bleakness. We Need to Talk About Kevin, based on the best-selling novel by the same title by Lionel Shriver, is no exception. The film is intensely visual, with a kind of stream-of-consciousness style, especially around the beginning, and benefits from an outstanding performance by Tilda Swinton as the complex Eva.

Eva seems alternately like a bad mother and all-around ice queen and a woman trying to do best by her family, and one must wonder if her memory (and by extension, the whole movie’s narrative) is reliable as she paints a terrifying portrait of Kevin literally from babyhood to present day. The movie asks the question of whether we can always blame the parents of these children for the kids’ evil actions or if some youngsters are just bad eggs.

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The answer to this question is often ambiguous here, but ultimately we decide that no, we can’t ultimately blame Eva for how ‘widdle Kevin’ turned out. It brings up the aged-old question of ‘nature vs. nurture’ in a new and interesting way, and packs a hell of a wallop in the process. This movie will make you think twice about going off the pill and make you wonder if having a little ball of joy of your own is overrated.

The part near the end of the movie at the school when Kevin’s plan goes full circle makes me think of a extra I saw on my parents’ DVD of the original Halloween. Donald Pleasence, who played Sam Loomis, told the director that he could play the sequence when Myers falls out the window after getting shot and somehow escapes into thin air one of two ways; ‘Oh my God, he’s gone’ or ‘I knew this would happen.’ Ultimately they decided on the latter because the former would be, well, too much.

That’s what I think of when I see Eva’s expression as she eyes the bicycle locks Kevin previously ordered in the mail on the doors of the school auditorium. Her expression is less a look of shocked horror as it is a look of resignation. I knew this would happen. On one hand, you wonder why Eva didn’t get her son major psychological help right off the bat, but on the other, could she really of prevented Kevin’s insanity if she had? After all, when you have a blissfully ignorant husband who refuses to believe your son has a problem, how are you going to get an evaluation carried out without his blessing?

All in all, We Need to Talk About Kevin is kind of like watching a train wreck, albeit a visually striking one with a handful of outstanding shots. It makes us women, whether we plan to be mothers or not, wonder how far maternal love goes and if you can be held culpable simply for not loving your child enough. Is it possible to love a monster? I think so. People do it all the time.

But for someone like Eva who obviously didn’t want to be a mother in the first place, her failure to love her son was ultimately ammunition for her evil child to use against her. Eva’s coldness is not an excuse for Kevin’s behavior anymore than Kevin being a difficult baby is an excuse for Eva to make very little effort with her offspring. One persons’ blame does not cancel the others’ out. But that’s not enough for other parent not to convince themselves that they could do better. Given the circumstances, could you?

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Beautiful Boy (2010)

Writer’s Note- I wrote this review a couple of years ago and just posted it on this blog now, so forgive me if the writing isn’t up to par with some of the later reviews. Also, I wrote this a little while before the film “We Need to Talk About Kevin” came out.

Within a span of a couple of years, two indie films with very similar premises hit festivals, their names being We Need to Talk About Kevin and Beautiful Boy. I have just seen the latter, a tremendously acted film that deals with the aftermath of rather than the build-up to a school shooting, and concentrates on the grieving parents of the shooter.

The tagline of this movie, “Everything seemed perfect… Everything would change” is grossly inaccurate, as the group in question is not a happy family. Katie and Bill (Maria Bello and Michael Sheen) are trapped in a failing marriage to the point of sleeping in separate beds, while college student Sam (Kyle Gallner) is suicidally depressed and can barely contain his tears as he talks to his parents by phone, as it turns out, for the last time.

Beautiful Boy‘s shooter does not seem to be a psychopath, as We Need to Talk About Kevin‘s promos show their angry young man to be. Rather, he seems to be a deeply unhappy person who irrationally not only wants to die, but wants to take some people with him.

Frankly, I don’t agree with the film’s statement that “it’s nobody’s fault.” Except in some rare cases, people are to some degree responsible for their own actions. If you say it is in no way the shooter’s fault, you’re taking away his role as perpetrator. Should we say the same for rapists? Pedophiles? If you don’t consider the kid a monster, fine (nor do I), but give me something here.

Paired with the son’s seemingly average home life, this makes the film’s act of violence rather puzzling. What really stands out is the acting, Maria Bello, primarily, but also Michael Sheen, Kyle Gallner, and Alan Tudyk (from the great series Firefly) as the concerned brother. The peculiarly named Moon Bloodgood and Meat Loaf are decent too, though not notably so. Some of Beautiful Boy reminded me of Todd Fields’ In The Bedroom, the guilt, the blame-placing, and the grief, without the relentless grimness of Fields film.

One plus is the minimal use of music to make a point, which is always applied with buzz kill in mainstream American films. Beautiful Boy is an emotional film — try to watch the scene where the parents receive the news without your lip a-quivering, and excellently acted, but a certain something keeps it from being an “unforgettable film.”

It may be the sentimentality or naivete placed deep within the script or the fact that, although there are many characters to care about, there are none who blow you away. I’m interested to see what We Need to Talk About Kevin does with the subject matter, and whether it surpasses this in content or style.

Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine

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10-year-old Caitlyn Smith has always coped better with her older brother Devon by her side. For a girl with Asperger’s Syndrome, support from friends and family is crucial, and Devon teaches her how to fit in in her small Virginia town. But now Devon is gone, his life taken senselessly by a school shooter, and Caitlyn must navigate the confusing and sometimes hostile world without Devon’s guiding hand. Like many people with Asperger’s, Caitlyn is a literal and black-and-white thinker, and as she struggles to understand her loss and grapples with making friends and learning empathy, she decides that ‘closure’ is something she and her father would very much like.

“Mockingbird” is lyrical and sweet, however brief. Caitlyn isn’t like a stereotypical Aspie with a robotic narration solving math problems in her head. Her voice is unique, faraway but strong and present, and she is a gifted artist. Tentatively at her counselor Mrs. Brooks’ urging she befriends a six-year-old boy whose mother was killed in the shooting, and learns to cope.

The author was inspired to write this book after the 2007 Virginia Tech Massacre. The crime was terrible, of course, but these things seem to be becoming so common that they all just sort of blur together for me. I remember Sandy Hook particularly shook me up because the victims were little kids and it was unimaginable that a grown man would want to go in there and do that to a bunch of Kindergartners.

There’s a considerable lack of depth in the secondary players (and a little bit more development of Josh, the second most interesting character, might of been in order) but this may reflect Caitlyn’s lack of understanding of her family and peers. I found myself oddly unmoved by the emotional element, although the prose is well structured. I didn’t cry or even really get sad reading it. Instead, I appreciated it, but it failed to make me experience big feelings.

Kathryn Erskine has written a sensitive book, and she has created an Aut-Lit (Autism Spectrum literature) narrative that is well-done and original. If she had written a bit more or gone deeper into the psychological/social/family aspects, it might have gotten a 4 Star Rating from me. “Mockingbird” is short and sweet, but lacks the bite or depth to make it a classic.

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Elephant (2003)

“Elephant” is an interesting experiment, which could benefit from some editing and stronger acting. The ambiguity that surrounds the motivations of the killers is a frustrating, but perhaps relevant, critique of the shroud of confusion that surrounded the Columbine killings. 

   Parents, teachers, bullies, and the media were all held under scrutiny, and many school shootings later, we’re still holding candles in the dark as to what motivates these kids to kill their peers- and themselves- in a time that seems rich with possibility.

    The film is presented in a series of vignettes of students habitating a generic high school on the day of a Columbine-like massacre. Using nonprofessional actors and a handheld camera, the film recounts the a day in the kid’s lives- for many, their last- slowly following them around the school as they interact with their teachers and each other.

   The stand-out actors here are Alex Frost, as Alex, the apparent leader in the duo of shooters, and  Matt Malloy as Mr. Luce, the apathetic principal. Most of the acting (unsurprisingly, considering the inexperience of the cast) is rather stiff and listless, while attempting to be ‘real’ and ‘natural.’ The stillness of the performances are rather confusing considering the extreme nature of the subject matter.

   The characters are relatively interesting, not worth falling in love with but worth observing and studying. The most compelling character for me was Michelle (Kristen Hicks) a geeky student who deals with the bullying of her peers and the apathy of her teachers. Self-conscious of her legs, Michelle is told to tough it out and forced to wear shorts by an uncaring gym teacher.

   The kids’ individual dramas are made obsolete, a least for a little while, by the bigger drama of the shooting. This film is SLOW. 20% of the film is spent following the students, watching the back of their heads with intent interest. I would not recommend this movie to people who like fast-paced cinema. To people who are tolerant of slowness and stillness, I would not necessarily recommend it either. 

   “Elephant” is more an experiment than a full-fledged feature, and people out for entertainment should just forget it. But what do you expect with a Gus Van Sant indie movie about a school shooting? Sicko (cough.) Anyway, I feel pretty neutral about the feature as a whole. Some people might find it to be a film-student’s dream, others will be bored silly. Though I may dismiss it, I will not forget it either.