Elephant Movie Review
With Elephant, he takes a more documentarian approach, shooting seemingly handheld style right up in the faces of the teens he is following, or right above the back of their shoulders. He follows a wide range of clichéd characters, from jock to nerd to slacker, up until the moment two of them go haywire on their fellow schoolmates with weapons purchased off of the Internet. And, yes, it is fairly obvious who the troublemakers will be as soon as they appear on camera.
Though the pacing feels painstakingly slow as you watch the back of a head walk casually through corridors, or from the athletic field to the classroom, it also allows for a distinctive survey of where this particular student fits into the environment. Parts of conversation and activity filter through as the camera glides with its current subject, providing instant comfort or agitation when they pass a pleasant peer versus a stressful situation.
The other fortunate immediacy of close range is that, regardless of the particular angst being experienced, there is a strong sympathy conveyed without judgment. No matter which stereotype you most identify with, the problems of being a teenager are so universal you realize it's all stemming from the same mix of hormones and identity seeking.
But that most of the characters portrayed are extremes gets so predictable you don't want to see them fulfill their roles. You spot the bulimics before their bathroom trip. Their synchronization of behavior brings laughter, but it's more laughter of ridiculousness than the nervous laughter at the illness that it should be. You don't need to see the homely, quiet girl get picked on because it's obvious that she does as soon as she steps the opposite direction from her gym class.
Despite these moments, there are many emotional sections that hold up well in their minor details. When one young girl is arguing with her friends that she needs to spread her time between her boyfriend and shopping, it's piercing when she gives into the "but I'm your best friend" pressure. The slacker who responsibly calls his brother to pick up their drunken father is handled with beautiful matter-of-fact simplicity, only matched by the principal's knowing and caring look as he sends him away without a lecture.
Through its ups and downs, Van Sant has managed to create an ensemble portrait of one of the toughest time periods in everyone's life. It actually becomes poignant to see the forming of coping with life's difficulties in action. And at a mere 81 minutes of screen time, it's worth a look by those who've been a part of a crowd as well as those who never fit in.
Reviewed as part of the 2003 New York Film Festival.
Room at the zoo.