At first glance, The Life Before Her Eyes is about a school shooting and those terrorized by it. But that’s not the whole story. Based on a novel by Laura Kasischke, the film portrays 17-year-old Diana hammering out her own identity. The bloody tragedy that rocks her school—and her life—is a backdrop, a turning point and an instrument in Diana’s quest to define herself. And that struggle is going on long before the young gunman rages through the school with an assault rifle.
Diana and her best friend, Maureen, live in a run-down neighborhood in a sleepy Connecticut town, and both come from homes helmed by single moms. That’s where their similarities end. Maureen is a responsible, successful student with a good measure of Christian devotion and morals to match. Diana is a bright girl who often neglects her schoolwork. And she’s chosen to “find herself” by pursuing vice rather than virtue. Diana’s escapades with boys and drugs make for some fireworks between her and Maureen, but still their friendship is compelling. Tender scenes find them dreaming together about their futures, and Diana confiding in Maureen about the strong, loving woman she wants to be.
One beautiful and fateful spring day, Diana’s vision of her future is threatened by a fellow student on a shooting rampage. Holding Diana and Maureen at gunpoint in the ladies’ room of the fictional Hillview High School, shooter Michael Patrick vows to kill—but only one of them.
Diana’s life flashes before her eyes as she, in terror, contemplates losing either her life or her best friend.
House of Sand and Fog director Vadim Perelman sends the film violently skipping back and forth between the days leading up to the shooting and Diana’s life 15 years later. She’s got a gorgeous country home, a beautiful 8-year-old daughter, and a brilliant and loving husband. But the more we see of Diana and her grown-up world, the more it’s clear that the shooter has robbed her of something she can never get back.
Maureen and Diana’s unlikely friendship is good for both of them. Maureen gives Diana something to aspire to; Diana inspires Maureen with her zest for life. When the two clash over Diana’s immoral choices, it’s clear that Maureen only wants the best for her friend.
A caring teacher, Mr. McCleod, recognizes that Diana has great potential and is squandering it by her bad choices. He offers her a chance to redeem herself in his class by doing extra credit—and to redeem herself in life by going to hear a local professor lecture on conscience. Diana does so, and her world begins to change.
The high school-age Diana has an abortion after becoming pregnant with the boyfriend she’s sleeping with. Why mention this inside a section called “Positive Elements”? Because The Life Before Her Eyes examines the distress and destruction—both physical and psychological—the decision to destroy the life of an unborn child can create. On the lawn of a parochial school, dozens of white crosses are displayed as a memorial for children who have been killed by abortion. And while walking among those tiny white markers, Diana recognizes at some level that the baby she aborted was a person.
In the flash-forward scenes, the adult Diana has—at least at the outset—a healthy marriage and family. Her husband dotes on her and they strive to work as a team to properly raise their daughter, Emma.
Also of note is a scene in which Diana chides her daughter for watching a violent show on TV. “You shouldn’t be watching this, Emma,” she says as she clicks the tube off. “It’s funny. It’s just like a joke,” Emma retorts. “It’s not a joke,” Diana says.
[Spoiler Warning] For all her self-doubt and acting out, Diana really does have a strong, compassionate, selfless heart. And as she and Maureen face down the shooter, each girl offers to make the ultimate sacrifice to save the life of the other.
Maureen is portrayed as a Pentecostal Christian. Diana won’t go to church with her, but Maureen doesn’t waver in her devotion. Diana says it’s not her fault she can’t go. Her mother “isn’t crazy about teens writhing around on the ground and seeing things.” After Maureen attends a church service, Diana teasingly asks her if anyone spoke in tongues. Maureen answers sincerely, “No. But we prayed and we felt a great rush of the Holy Spirit.” In another scene, she shares with her friend what she remembers of a vision she saw during worship. Maureen good-naturedly weathers Diana’s ribbing about her commitment to abstinence before marriage and her jokes about Maureen growing up to be a “perfect, creepy Christian” mother of eight children.
A decade and a half later, Diana’s husband, Paul, is a professor. We hear him give a lecture on conscience. The speech swings back and forth between orthodoxy (“Conscience is the voice of God in the nature and heart of man”) and humanism (“We can author our own destinies. … We have the talent to imagine our future selves”). He mentions the title of another lecture he’s working on: “The Problem of Evil, The Problem of Good.”
A brief reference is made to a person’s spirit being absorbed into the universe after death. “Maybe we’re just like the rain when it evaporates,” Diana wonders. “You know, we just go back into the atmosphere.” For all her Christian commitments, Maureen says that she might believe in reincarnation.
A key element of Diana’s search for significance is her promiscuity, which is portrayed with more nuance than Hollywood typically bothers with. On one hand, the leading lady’s attitude is pragmatic: She sleeps around because she doesn’t see how that choice can be avoided in today’s world. On the other hand, actress Evan Rachel Wood does a beautiful job of showing the violence Diana’s immorality does to her tender teenage spirit. Being called a slut wounds her, even though she knows she deserves the title. And when an older guy she’s slept with writes her off without a second glance, the pain runs deep. Diana swims naked in a pool with that guy, who’s named Marcus. The two have sex in the water. (Explicit contact is obscured by careful transitions between underwater and above-water camera angles.) Later, they’re shown in bed together, their clothes on the floor. (We see part of Diana’s bare side.) She makes a point of saying that she thinks the only reason he likes her is because she’s still 17.
Much is made of the self-proclaimed “virgin and whore” contrast of Diana and Maureen’s friendship. Maureen confronts Diana—usually tenderly, but sometimes not—about her promiscuity. Diana respects Maureen’s chastity, but doesn’t think it’s very practical. She challenges, “Do you think a boy is going to ask you to drive around the block a couple of times, then get married and wait for the rapture?”
Several of Diana’s outfits (when she’s young and when she’s married) reveal cleavage and/or her bra straps. Young Diana is pictured multiple times in a bikini. Maureen joins her in the pool—usually in her bikini, but once in shorts and a bra. Students make sexual jokes about a teacher. Later, as a teacher herself, Diana shows her students a “classic” nude painting.
After a boy exposes himself to Diana, she kicks him in the groin. (We hear the sound of his jeans zipper, but the camera doesn’t see what she sees.)
The film’s pivotal event—the school shooting—is shown in pieces that are scattered throughout. And every piece is grim and assaulting. When Michael corners the girls in the ladies’ room, he points his gun at both of them, then puts it directly to Maureen’s head. While he’s waiting for them to decide which one should die, he shoots up a row of bathroom sinks.
Audiences witness at least two characters being shot and falling to the floor in slow motion. A montage of the crime’s aftermath shows victims slumped over their desks with bloody bullet holes in their backs, crumpled on the floor or slouched against walls with gore splattered and pooling around them. Offscreen shots tell us the killer ultimately takes his own life.
There are disturbing scenes—and more so because we’ve seen it as often on the evening news as the movie screen.
Elsewhere, Diana gets hit by a car and knocked to the ground.
Part of young Diana’s adopted persona is a persistent swearing habit. She’s particularly fond of the f-word, which gets used about a dozen times, sometimes in a sexual context. The s-word comes up a handful of times, too, as do milder profanities. God’s name is misused, once in conjunction with “d–n.” Teens throw around crude insults such as “p—y” and “d–kwad.”
Diana and some other girls smoke cigarettes in the school locker room. A couple of times Maureen accuses Diana of being high—and more often than not, she’s right. We see Diana smoke marijuana with Marcus. On a different occasion, she’s caught carrying pot at school and punished for it.
Grown up, Diana and Paul drink wine at dinner. Diana still smokes as an adult.
Young Maureen lies once to her mother. The out-of-character act is not lost on Diana who comments, “I didn’t know you were allowed to lie.” The incident is played as a noble choice on Maureen’s part, since the lie protects Diana from an uncomfortable inquisition. Diana and Maureen frequently “borrow” another family’s backyard swimming pool without permission.
Emma is disobedient at times. Once, she tells her mother, “You can’t make me do anything.” She has a bad habit of running away and hiding. She also says she hates the head nun at her parochial school. And when she gets in trouble and is asked why she thinks Mommy is mad at her, she replies that it’s because Mommy hates her.
Vadim Perelman describes the novel on which his film is based as both non-linear and “dreamlike.” His onscreen interpretation follows suit. Even though the violence of a school shooting is more a nightmare than a dream—and is depicted with some vividness and therefore should not be encountered casually—The Life Before Her Eyes emerges as a visually rich film, packed with beautiful images and layers of subtle symbolism.
Thematically, this story is more an examination of the choices young women make than of the school-shooting phenomenon. It’s the inner lives of teenage girls stuck in the hazardous habitat we call American culture that’s the real focus here. And while Diana’s swearing, smoking, toking and promiscuity turn her into a very poor role model, she’s positioned to make the statement that girls’ hearts are still strong. Faced with an enormous challenge, they’re capable of rising to heights even they were unaware they could reach.
Maureen, meanwhile, isn’t a perfect Christian. (None of us are.) She swears once. She lies once. She timidly trespasses. She lashes out at Diana during a fight and calls her a slut. But she’s about as genuine a positive spiritual influence as has been on a mall movie screen in quite some time. She gently and consistently nudges her friend away from her destructive behavior and toward God with a generous mix of grace and truth.
She has clearly taken to heart the poignant quote from American philosopher William James, with which Paul begins his aforementioned lecture: “Begin to be now what you will be hereafter.” How you begin to be is supremely important, this movie insists. And while it refuses to proclaim the exact moral path through the weighty issues of promiscuity, abortion, conscience, friendship and family relationships with which it deals, it is adamant that choices—be they about life and death or swimming pools and homework assignments—matter.