Perelman’s film has its ups and downs


Director Vadim Perelman made a promising start with his first film House of Sand and Fog. The film had beautiful, dream-like photography and a story of murky moral dilemma in which a young woman (Jennifer Connelly) struggles to recover her family home, which has been sold to an ambitious Iranian immigrant, played by Ben Kingsley. The story was filled with complexities and humanity, something more than straightforward characters and familiar plots.

Maybe it is his background as a Ukrainian Jew that draws Perelman to themes of moral dilemma and difficult choices. He again tackles those themes with his newest film. The film is based on the novel by Laura Kasischke. In The Life Before Her Eyes, two teenaged girls are faced with a kind of Sophie’s Choice in a Columbine-like school shooting. They are confronted by the school shooter, who tells them that one of them must die. One girl says “kill me, spare my friend.” Does the other say “no, kill me” or “kill her”?

Like his first film, The Life Before Her Eyes has beautiful photography and imagery, polished production values and a great cast. While the intentions in making it are admirable, The Life Before Her Eyes is not a flawless film. In fact, it is a bit of a muddle, as it moves back and forward in time and mixes dream and reality. The drama is also a bit of a “chick flick” but not in any light-hearted sense.

The best thing in The Life Before Her Eyes is young Jewish American actress Evan Rachel Wood, who plays the young Diana in the film, one of the two girls facing the awful choice at the hands of the shooter. In part of the film, we follow the story of young Diana and her friend Maureen (Eva Amurri). In another storyline, 15 years after the shooting, we follow the story of an older Diana, played by Uma Thurman, living a seemingly ideal life with her daughter Emma (Gabrielle Brennan) and husband Paul (Brett Cullen).

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The two teens are very close but also different from each other. Both have single mothers who leave the girls on their own. But Diana is a bit wild, a risk-taker and more impulsive and worldly with regard to guys. Maureen is shyer, more cautious, religious, less grown up but sure of herself in ways that Diana is not.

The film brings up the idea of good and evil, and of conscience, often, mainly in the sequences of the older Diana. “Conscience is the voice of God in the nature and heart of man,” Diana’s husband tells a crowd at a lecture. The film is packed with images of spring and nature, of growth and renewal and dreamy and sometimes distorted images, like objects seen through water. Perelman returns time and again to questions of moral choices.

Cutting back and forth between the two Dianas, it becomes increasingly difficult to be certain what is real, what is in what time frame, and what might be imagined. Even two viewings of the film did not resolve the questions. Those who have read the novel know how this works out, but if one only watches the film, it may seem more open to interpretation.

The film is at its best in the sequences between the two teens, creating a picture of the bond of young female friendship that is compelling and likely familiar to most women.

Wood, and Amurri are both very good in their roles. Amurri, who is the daughter of Susan Sarandon and bears a resemblance to her, breathes real life into her character.

The rest of the cast is good as well, with Thurman doing her best efforts despite the film’s rather muddled narrative. Thurman often has to cope with too much melodrama in her scenes.

In an interesting St. Louis note, Kansas City-born actress Lynn Cohen, who is Jewish, plays Sister Beatrice, the head of the school Emma attends. Cohen appeared at St. Louis’ Repertory Theater in the 1975 production of Tom Jones, and she taught and directed plays at the JCC in her years in St. Louis. She played Golda Meier in Munich and Magda in Sex In The City. She is also now appearing as Helen Hunt’s mother Trudy in the current film Then She Found Me and in a role in the new thriller Deception. Now, that’s versatile.

The Life Before Her Eyes is high concept although it seems that Perelman’s film is sometimes too melodramatic, heavy on symbolism, not subtle enough or even gimmicky. In a moment of mortal danger, does a teenager’s past life flash before her eyes or the future life that could have been? If she chooses to save herself, does the choice play forever in her head? These are questions worth asking but it is too bad the film does not do a better job of posing them.

“The Life Before Her Eyes” opens on Friday, May 2, at Landmark’s Plaza Frontenac Cinema.