Photograph by Phillip Caruso, courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
PETAL EXTREMITIES: Even a beautiful garden can't keep Uma Thurman from dark thoughts about her past in 'The Life Before Her Eyes.'
My So-Called Life
The memory of a high school tragedy haunts a grown woman in 'The Life Before Her Eyes'
By Richard von Busack
Some twist endings should be left to twist slowly in the wind. Still, The Life Before Her Eyes' punch line--it was fresh 125 years ago anyway--isn't completely unworkable. A poetic director, preferably female, could have made something out of this story. Despite Sofia Coppola's limitations, this is material that would have suited her perfectly. Diana (Uma Thurman) lives the luxury-car commercial life, inhabiting a fine old two-story house surrounded by at least a half-acre of perfect flowers--it looks like the filmmakers took the cameras to Butchart Gardens. She drives her seemingly perfect little daughter to Catholic school. In the opposite direction, her husband, a bearded philosophy professor, pedals off to college on his bicycle. Diana's day is shadowed by the anniversary of the high school shooting that changed her life. Although she has chosen to lock out the memories, they intrude.
In unusually shapeless flashbacks, Diana's past life unfolds. When she was 17 (Evan Rachel Wood plays her then), Diana's best friend forever was a religious girl named Maureen (Eva Amurri of Saved!). One day, a rejected young male got an automatic rifle and went on a rampage. Maureen and Diana were cornered in a flooded school bathroom. The killer drew on them, asking them to pick which one of them should live. And then we cut away to the present. The perfection of Diana's middle-aged life is cracking; her daughter keeps running away from her teachers and hiding. And her husband appears to be having an affair with a student.
The otherwise very literal director Vadim Perelman demonstrates the same vagueness about class conflict and the price of things that he showed in House of Sand and Fog. And once again, he is doing a movie where knowledge of these matters is essential. Diana claims she came from the wrong side of the tracks, a small-town girl with a rep for sluttiness. But the small town is a perfect Connecticut village. At least Diana's particular badness is manifested in her getting an abortion. It's a bloody, botched trauma; 2008 movie abortions always are. And her decision is a cause for later grieving, over one of those fields of crosses that the anti-choice put up as memorials to the unborn. Perelman isn't much of a hand for symbolism. Symbols better seen out of the corner of our eye are slammed right in the middle of a frame. The events in both of Diana's lives seem unmoored in time. It is all explained, if not satisfactorily, and yet still doesn't add up. In this film, the flowers are arranged better than the flow of flashbacks and flash-forwards.
Amurri is an underrated actress, even if the film's bead on her character is wobbly. Wood's fine-boned, luminous face almost draws us into a story without a center. Michigan poet Laura Kasischke's novel has an idea that could be transformed into a dreamy, haunting movie. But even if the theme were handled better, it would still be a movie to be swallowed, not understood. If picked apart, this self-pitying story tries to match the pain of middle-aged malaise with the pain of a Columbine-style catastrophe. It is one thing when teenage dreams die a natural death by age. It is another when they are ended by murder.
THE LIFE BEFORE HER EYES (R; 90 min.), directed by Vadim Perelman, written by Emil Stern, based on the novel by Laura Kasischke, photographed by Pawel Edelman and starring Uma Thurman, plays at the Nickelodeon in Santa Cruz.
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