School shootings are horrific events that mercilessly cut down young lives before they even properly begin. That they even take place is hard enough to fathom, but that they could also present victims with an impossible choice such as the one given to Diana McFee in The Life Before Her Eyes is truly staggering. This question of who should live and who should die, as well as the kinds of experiences that will never be had, is the central focus of this 2007 Vadim Perelman film.
Plot summary (with possible spoilers): Diana (played by Evan Rachel Wood) and Maureen (Eva Amurri) are best friends in high school, despite having completely opposite personalities. Diana smokes, sleeps around, and causes other minor mischief, while Maureen is a typical goody-goody, straight-A student with strong religious convictions. The girls spend most of their time together doing things that alls best friends of that age do, such as talking about boys they like, complaining about school, and dreaming of their future.
Their whole world comes crashing down when an armed gunman — a fellow student who had actually revealed his plan to Diana the day before — starts spraying the school with bullets in a spree reminiscent of the Columbine shootings. The gunman corners Diana and Maureen in the bathroom, saying that he will only kill one of them. The problem is, they have to decide which one it should be.
From there, the movie flashforwards 15 years to show an adult Diana who is still dealing with the traumatic after effects of the shooting. Diana is now married to a professor named Paul (Brett Cullen), and they have a daughter Emma (Gabrielle Brennan). They live in a neat little house in the same town that Diana grew up in, and seem to have an idyllic life on the surface. But Diana’s memories of the shooting keep crowding in on her, especially now that it’s the 15-year anniversary. Things start to fall apart, and Diana seems powerless to prevent herself from sliding into oblivion.
The rest of the film then intercuts between adult Diana’s life and scenes from her high school days with Maureen. With each successive time jump, a bit more is revealed about what happened on that fateful day, until the full story eventually emerges.
My Reaction: I thought The Life Before Her Eyes was an extremely compelling film that was highly engrossing right from the start. I hadn’t really heard anything about the movie before I rented it, but wasn’t expecting too much out of it since it only has a 6.6 rating on IMDb and a dismal 26% aggregate rating out of 70 reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. Most of the negative reviews said that The Life Before Her Eyes was far too melodramatic and “desperate” in its quest for meaning. I can certainly see how some people might react that way, but I didn’t at all.
Although I usually don’t like films that play fast and loose with the timeline, I didn’t mind all the jumps in this one. I was kept guessing about what actually happened in that bathroom right until the very end, and I found both the high school and adult scenes tension-filled and interesting. It was only until the result of the shooting was revealed did I have my “Aha!” moment and realize that a bunch of clues as to the true ending had been littered along the journey. In case you missed them, here are a few that I remember off the top of my head:
- Diana’s adult life pretty much mirrors everything she dreamed it would be in high school, down to marrying the professor, having a daughter named Emma, and living in a house with a porch. How often do our lives turn out exactly the way we imagine them in high school? The reason for this one, of course, was the fact that this was Diana’s life flashing before her eyes before she died. Therefore, it contained only the elements she had thought of or talked about with Maureen.
- Adult Diana’s art history lectures on Gauguin are the result of the art textbook she was reading in high school.
- Adult Diana’s life seemed somehow fuzzy and incomplete, as if a lot of details were missing. She was always shown in tight shots that didn’t give viewers a sense of time or space. It was as though she were living in a vacuum or something, and the ending reveals why this is.
- When adult Diana sees her “husband” walking down the street with another woman, it’s actually the younger version of herself that she sees with him. That’s because Paul is the professor she had her affair with while she was in high school.
- When adult Diana walks back into the high school during the memorial service, the usher asks her if she’s a survivor, and she says, “No.”
I’m sure there are a bunch of other clues that I missed, but these are the ones I remember right now. And yet despite all of these hints, I wasn’t exactly sure what happened in the bathroom until it was shown. I thought perhaps Diana had told the killer to shoot her friend and that her life was so messed up because she felt guilty about that. Remember the part where Diana drops Maureen’s hand? I figured that was because she was going to say, “Shoot her.” Then I thought maybe the gunman just killed Maureen anyway because he had some kind of connection to Diana (telling her about his plan beforehand), and Diana still felt guilty about that.
While the flashforward to a life that never was isn’t exactly an original technique (Anita Shreve used it in her 2002 novel The Last Time They Met), I found it to be a very effective storytelling device in The Life Before Her Eyes. This is a good film that was handled well by the director and actors alike. I give it 4 stars out of 5.