Tag Archives: high school

One Hour Mark: Elephant

By Andreas

You can’t quite see her face up there, but that’s Michelle (Kristen Hicks). At 1:00:00 into Gus Van Sant’s school tragedy à clef Elephant (2003), she’s just minutes away from death. Nothing about her milieu, with its pastels and clipboards and desktop computer, suggests that a bloodbath is about to unfold, but that’s the ace up Van Sant’s sleeve. In the middle of a perfectly routine school day, it’s here—in this safest and blandest of high school libraries—that we’re about to see Michelle’s blood splattered on a bookshelf.

The contrast is shocking, but it comes about organically. The stories of the killers, Alex and Eric, chronologically parallel those of Michelle and other students (a photographer, a jock, a trio of clique-y girls). These narrative strands wind around one another, occasionally intersecting in small but significant ways, until the massacre begins and collapses them all into a unified tragedy. Michelle is the first to go: she spots the killers’ weapons as they enter the library, and only gets out a polite “Hey, you guys—” before she’s cut off.

But until that moment, she’s just a lonely teenage girl living out her splintered vignette. She has a brusque exchange with her gym teacher, changes her clothes, then walks through the halls, breaking into a run as she nears the library. Hicks is a non-professional actor, and it shows in her remarkably unadorned performance; she’s self-contained, giving only the most minimal emotional cues to the audience. Van Sant’s direction follows suit, stalking the characters for us but never telling us how to react to them. It’s scrupulously fly-on-the-wall filmmaking.

The end result is an impeccably naturalistic movie that recreates the average high school experience with uncanny accuracy before dragging it down into hell. The school library is a dead ringer for other high school libraries across the country; Michelle’s short conversation with the librarian is utterly plausible; and the camera angle here gives the scene an incidental flavor—as if we just happened to peek in on these characters, and this is what they were up to. Poor Michelle feels less like a fictional character and more like a documentary subject.

This quasi-documentary style, coupled with Hicks’s hushed acting style, makes me wish we’d seen more of Michelle, or at least seen her in a movie where she wasn’t marked for death. We learn vaguely of her body image problems, her awkwardness, and her difficulty socializing; she’s kind of like an ultra-realistic version of Sissy Spacek’s Carrie. But then, of course, she’s blown away. I know this is a movie about Columbine, but I can’t help feeling like she’s used to add adolescent color to Van Sant’s high school setting, and then perforated like a flesh-and-blood prop. I love Elephant, but I still wish it did better by its ill-fated characters.

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“Moderately priced soaps are my calling.”

For this week’s installment of The Film Experience’s Hit Me With Your Best Shot, I actually had to watch a movie I was totally unfamiliar with: Mean Girls (2004), which apparently everyone else in the world (who’s hip and “with it,” at least) had already seen. Well, I’m glad I finally did too, because the film is quick-witted and bursting with delightful energy. Granted, it takes place at a very Hollywood high school, where cliques are unambiguously delineated through lunch room tables and even the principle knows who-slept-with-who gossip. (Does that happen at real high schools? It didn’t at mine.)

But its tale of newcomer Cady Heron (pre-trainwreck Lindsay Lohan), her rise to the top of the school hierarchy, and her subsequent redemption from bitchiness is an apt scaffolding on which writer Tina Fey strings joke after joke after joke, never missing a beat, and adds in reams of Heathers-style quotable damage. That movie had “What’s your damage?”; this one has “Coolness.” Or a thousand other lines. You probably know better than I do. It’s also got a host of fantastic, infectious performances, like Tim Meadows as the beleaguered high school principal; Amy Poehler as the worst airheaded, ultra-bourgeois mom of all time; and my personal favorite, Amanda Seyfried as Karen Smith, the ditzy blonde. Ergo, here is my favorite image.

I like this because it’s the character of Karen stripped to her barest essentials: a goofy smile and surprisingly mobile eyes. It’s surprising that in 2004, it was still possible to breathe new life into the tired “Dumb Blonde” stereotype, but Seyfried did it, giving a nuanced comic performance while playing someone who’s dumb as rocks. I mean, you’d expect it to be a one-note performance, but Seyfried hits every possible shade of stupid with uncanny effectiveness. She’s so good that I think I could watch her stupid eyes loll back and forth for an entire movie. And, to further my praise, I didn’t even think her lines were especially well-written, at least in relation to the rest of the film. She made more out of Karen than Fey ever put on paper. “Cough. Cough.”

Seyfried isn’t alone in her awesomeness. Despite the great work done by Lohan and Rachel McAdams as the lead rival characters, the minor characters just steal the show. Perhaps the best example of this is Daniel Franzese and Lizzy Caplan as Damien and Janis, Cady’s real friends who sit at the artsy kids’ table. They’re so unpretentious and lovable, even if they are occasionally – OK, constantly – catty. But at this fictional high school, who isn’t catty? This leads to my second-favorite image, from a montage of characters preparing for the much-awaited Spring Fling.

For one thing, this is our first glance at Damien’s fabulously, if stereotypically, decorated room. (Seriously, I want a Singin’ in the Rain poster!) For another and more important thing, this image just solidifies in my mind how mind-blowingly cool these two characters are. Purple tuxedoes. Between that, Janis’s hair, and her always-regal bearing, how could her idiot classmates not have voted her Spring Fling Queen? I’ll tell you why not: because I got way, way too invested in these minor characters. But really, these two are both so shifty, snarky, and endearing. They’re like George Sanders x 2. That’s times two.

Come to think of it, these two just confirm for me how much this movie resembles Daria. Cast of high school stereotypes? Check. Bitter jokes at their expense? Also check. And think about: Regina, Gretchen, Karen = Sandi, Stacy, Tiffany! Wow, now I realize why I enjoyed this movie so much! OK, the Daria connection, the fact that it’s just a well-made, brilliant high school comedy… and, after all, not liking it is social suicide.

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