Frost plays a troubled high school student in "Elephant,"
Gus Van Sant's poetic meditation on high school violence.
Fine Line Pictures
Written and directed by Gus Van Sant
Produced by Dany Wolf
Starring Alex Frost, Eric Deulen, John Robinson, Elias McConnell,
Jordan Taylor, Carrie Finklea, Nicole George, Brittany Mountain,
Alicia Miles, Kristen Hicks, Bennie Dixon, Nathan Tyson, Timothy
Bottoms and Matt Malloy
Gus Van Sants El-ephant makes it clear that no
other approach could do the films subject matter more justice.
Dealing with the touchy subject of high school violence, the film
resists the urge to explain away what happened in tragedies like
the one at Columbine High School. Instead, it simply delivers the
information with a stubbornly observational camera.
film is a sad, strangely beautiful portrait of a day in an ordinary
high school that turns tragic. Time folds back on itself as the
camera follows overlapping parts of the day through long tracking
shots of various students as they walk through the halls and school
grounds. Early in the film, two boys, Alex and Eric (Alex Frost
and Eric Deulen), walk by with large bags of supplies, and we and
one of the students, John (John Mc-Farland), suspect that something
horrible is about to happen.
who arent in high school often forget how difficult it can
be. Mainstream movies tend to present views where the biggest concern
students have is who will take them to the prom or if theyll
lose their virginity. Elephant captures a more authentic
view, showing what starts out as a day like any other day.
camera descends from a blue sky with pretty clouds, down through
the golden leaves and into a Portland, Ore., high school. John arrives
at school late after having to drive for and help his drunk, alcoholic
father. When he finally gets through the door and calls his brother
to come help his dad, a faculty member tells him to come to his
office for being late.
Another student, Eli (Elias McCo-nnell), is at the enthusiastic
stage when a young person realizes a talent for and the power of
an art. He walks around taking pictures of people to put in his
portfolio. Van Sant also presents a happy couple, a clique of self-
and fashion-aware girls, a class discussion about di-versity, an
awkward girl who goes through the awkward hell that is gym class
and other authentic, rarely portrayed aspects of high school life.
Sant spent time in Portland talking to students about what high
school is like and casting unknown high school actors in the parts.
There are no stars to create false drama out of vanity, and the
film often feels like were watch-ing kids be themselves.
the casting process recalls Italian Neo-Realism, the long, smooth,
deliberate takes recall the work of Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky
(1932-1986), who also influenced Van Sants last film, Gerry,
about two guys who go for a hike and get lost. That film received
flak for its slow pace (things dont happen particularly fast
when youre stranded in the desert), and this film is likely
to re-ceive similar reactions from people with short attention spans.
Its also likely that people wont enjoy its disturbing
elements, which arent at all glorified or glamorized as the
film reaches its violent climax.
kids run, too frightened to think, while others are so confused
that they dont know what to do. One boy, Benny (Ben-nie Dixon),
walks toward what everyone else is running from, curious at the
surreal scene. There are no heroes in the film, nothing that would
make people of any age see this violence as anything other than
the Columbine High School shooting and other similar events, the
media filled up with coverage and pundits obsessing over the reasons
the shootings occurred. Violent movies and video games, for example,
were easy scapegoats.
title Elephant refers to the inability to understand
a large problem in a small setting and with small details. The film
refuses to place blame on anything, and proposes no easy solutions
be-cause there are no easy solutions. The lack of easy explanations
has already bothered many people.
film debuted at the Cannes Film Festival and received the Palm dOr
(the top prize) and Best Director. The masterpiece easily deserved
the award compared with the other films in competi-tion, but some
usually very sharp critics, including Todd McCarthy of Variety,
criticized the film for its lack of solutions to the problem, calling
it irresponsible. Its easy to understand this reaction, as
the film is meant to create an uneasy feeling. But in truth, it
would have been irresponsible if the film had claimed knowledge
of all the an-swers. The kids-turned murderers themselves dont
really under-stand what happened.
Sant uses some of the theories that the self-righteous pundits cited,
but through quiet observation, demonstrates that these things really
couldnt do it on their own.
see a kid being picked on and we see an odd, haunting ver-sion of
a game in which you shoot people in the back in a snowy, barren
landscape. But we also see one of the boys playing Beethoven at
the piano, and a moment when one of the boys is showering in preparation
and the other, aware hes going to die, asks to kiss him to
find out what its like. The boys seem to have concocted this
project and are committed to see it through, no matter how irratio-nal
it might be. As they lay out their floor plan, we already know where
all the students weve come to know through small details areand
we know that even those who might be annoying dont deserve
serves as a sort of wit-ness as we return to him later in the film
in a sad, futile attempt to warn people. Emotion strikes through
Van Sants precise form as the kids look on in confusion. And
Elephant leaves a bit more understanding of the high
school experience, but the information, as in the real-life events,
offers no easy answers to reassure usmarking a truly responsible
film about a delicate topic.