Film shows how little parents know of their teens

December 02, 2003|By Susan Reimer

THE NEW movie Elephant takes its name from the parable of the five blind men who come upon the giant pachyderm from different angles; each decides that it is something different depending on which part of the animal he is touching.

The elephant in this movie is teen-age violence, specifically the murders at Columbine High School in April 1999.

Director Gus Van Sant records a fictional day in a high school from the vantage point of a handful of students, including the two who will murder their classmates, and asks us to decide what he is touching.

Coming as it does so close on the heels of Thirteen, during which we watched the rapid descent of a sweet middle-school girl into the teen hell of drugs, sex, alcohol, crime and self-mutilation, Elephant could push any parent seeing it right over the edge into despair.

That is, in part, because Van Sant offers no hopeful explanation for the tragedy of Columbine - nothing to let us off the hook. This detached and haunting movie gives us no reward, nothing we can use to tell ourselves that such a day will never happen again.

Elephant, which opens this weekend at the Charles Theatre, is instead a kind of meditation on a high school day as seen through the eyes of several kids whose lives suddenly intersect in gunfire.

It has no story line, no unfolding, no climax, no coda. The movie just floats, and we are adrift as well, compelled to make up some kind of conclusion to which we can anchor our chaotic thinking.

I'm not sure if a movie like this helps anything.

It is what might be called art for art's sake. Nothing is advanced, resolved or enlightened by this movie. As the credits roll, we feel only lost and sad. Van Sant has not even given us enough for the catharsis of rage.

After seeing Elephant, I have no new insights into what caused Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris to snap. But I do have a few into the lives of high school kids.

Van Sant used untrained actors from Portland, Ore., in the film and almost every scene and bit of dialogue was improvised after long discussions with the director, who was clearly listening as his young actors talked.

What I was left with, instead of any insight into the nature of adolescent violence, is a view of their lives at school, their lives away from home, their lives away from us.

And I was left feeling that awful powerlessness that parents barely keep at bay after their children can no longer be heard outside the screen door, playing in the back yard with friends.

Once our children acquire cars and cell phones, we are in a free fall, and we know it.

Our teen-agers live this separate, secret life, away from us. And they are experiencing things and navigating troubles that they do not share with us. Perhaps because they can't find the words to describe what they face each day. Perhaps because they don't think we matter anymore.

When we try to connect with our teens, it is based on some made-up idea of what their life is like. No wonder they dismiss us with monosyllables and retreat behind a closed bedroom door.

Do you know that your son the photographer can't seem to relate to other humans without a camera in his hands? Or that your child's best friend has become the adult in the family, caring for his alcoholic father?

That your daughter is a vicious gossip who purges her lunch every day? Or that she is so ashamed of her body that she would rather fail a gym class than expose it to ridicule?

Do we know that our kids torment another child, pelting him with wads of soaking toilet paper? Do we know our boys are ordering automatic weapons through the mail?

These are all scenes that unfold in Elephant.

But there are other scenes in Elephant that will also haunt me, and they have nothing to do with its bloody conclusion.

As Van Sant follows these kids through their day, he gives each a slow-motion moment of pure joy.

The football star catches a pass while playing a pickup game with friends. The lonely loser turns her face to the sun and smiles in pleasure for a moment during the misery of gym class.

My heart, pounding fearfully as I waited for the violence to come, fluttered with shared delight at these moments, and I thought that this is something else we cannot know or share with our children.

Their days at school can be banal, and perhaps the only moments that interrupt the tedium are those of angst or jealousy or fear or loneliness.

But perhaps there are those moments of pure pleasure, too. If we can't protect our children from despair, at least we can wish for them those instants of joy.

Perhaps I am as blind as the next parent. But in the depressing portrait depicted by Elephant, that is the part of the elephant I will hold on to.

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