Writer/director/editor Paul F. Ryan's powerful debut, inspired by real-life school shootings, distinguishes itself from other such projects by dealing less with the event itself than its devastating aftershocks. High-school seniors Deanna Cartwright (Erika Christensen) and Alicia Browning (Busy Philips) couldn't be more different: Pretty, popular Deanna...read more
Writer/director/editor Paul F. Ryan's powerful debut, inspired by real-life school shootings, distinguishes itself from other such projects by dealing less with the event itself than its devastating aftershocks. High-school seniors Deanna Cartwright (Erika Christensen) and Alicia Browning (Busy Philips) couldn't be more different: Pretty, popular Deanna is a straight-A student from a well-to-do family, while brooding loner Alicia lives with her disabled father (Arthur Taxier) and keeps others at bay with a threatening appearance and nasty attitude. But Deanna and Alicia share a powerful bond: Both were in the same homeroom when a classmate walked through the door and emptied his Tek-9 semiautomatic into anything that moved. When the shooting stopped, six students and the killer were dead; two others, including Deanna, were seriously wounded. Alicia, unharmed, was taken to the police station for questioning by Detective Martin Van Zandt (Victor Garber), whose captain (Ken Jenkins) is pressuring him to arrest someone anyone in connection with the attack. That Alicia not only knew the killer but, according to phone records, contacted him the night before the killings makes her a prime suspect. Did she have prior knowledge that could make her an accessory before the fact? School Principal Robbins (James Pickens Jr.), meanwhile, is more concerned with helping his students heal than finger-pointing, and thinks Alicia should spend some time with Deanna, who's recovering physically but shows signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. Alicia complies only after Robbins threatens to prevent her graduation, and even then spends the afternoon scowling at Deanna, who's nevertheless grateful for the company. But as the days drag on, Alicia gets past the differences that made them strangers in school the kind of differences that might have driven someone else to violence and sees the torment behind Deanna's preternaturally cheerful façade: nightmares, debilitating panic attacks, loneliness. Deanna, in turn, begins to understand Alicia, and senses that an older, deeper trauma had turned Alicia's heart to stone long before the shootings. Ryan's tough-minded little movie avoids any sort of sentimentality; nothing warm and fuzzy here, just honest emotions from two excellent young actresses. The film falters near the end, when Ryan tries to deal directly with the phenomenon of school shootings he doubtless felt that avoiding the issue would reduce terrible tragedy to a mere narrative device but once the riveting Philips returns, it quickly regains its direction.
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