Magnolia Pictures // 2008 // 90 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // August 21st, 2008
Your life can change in an instant.
"The heart is the body's strongest muscle."
Diana (Evan Rachel Wood, Across the Universe) isn't quite a "wild child," but she does tend to live a little dangerously. However, things just haven't been the same since she witnessed a Columbine-style murder spree at her high school. Before, Diana had always found balance in her life thanks to her friendship with the conservative Maureen, who was with her when the shooting occurred. After that tragic event, things started to become complicated and murky for the two young women. The Life Before Her Eyes follows Diana into her adult years, watching her change and grow. What is the secret behind Diana's wounded friendship with Maureen?
The Life Before Her Eyes is not so much a story as a thoughtful meditation. The film's pace is slow, deliberate, sad, and deeply observant. Very carefully, it peels off a new layer, studies that layer, and then proceeds to the next step. The film was directed by Vadim Perelman, best known for another thoughtful film called House of Sand and Fog. Perelman takes a relatively simple concept (one that I cannot reveal in this review for fear of spoiling your viewing experience) that really shouldn't turn out too well and makes it work beautifully.
There isn't a central mystery in the film, but The Life Before Her Eyes has an aura of mystery around it anyway. We get the sense that there is something beneath the surface, even though we haven't been given any solid indication that this is the case. I was drawn in immediately by the atmosphere Perelman provides during the opening credits. Pawel Edelman's cinematography is nothing short of gorgeous, providing hypnotic and lush images of colorful varieties of flowers coming into bloom. These images are nicely accentuated by a masterful James Horner score that provides melodic atmosphere without pushing in any specific direction. The notes move left, right, up, and down, and they are quite compelling, but they don't give us a clear picture of what is coming.
The school shooting is presented within the first 10 minutes, and it's an absolutely harrowing sequence. Perelman gives us a sense of half-dazed trauma in the scene, and it lingers with us for the rest of the film. We can all understand why a school shooting would traumatize Diana, but Perelman really makes us feel it. From that point, the film progresses in a non-linear fashion. We move ahead to Diana's adult years, where she is played by Uma Thurman, then back to the teen years. The film flips back and forth every few minutes, giving us bits and pieces of this woman's life. There aren't that many "important life events" presented here, but rather moments that reveal more about who Diana is as a human being. The film focuses on emotions and feelings first; then proceeds to work backwards to events and situations. That's part of what makes this film feel considerably more thoughtful than most; the majority of movies work the other way around.
The performances of Evan Rachel Wood and Uma Thurman are both quite excellent. Wood continues to prove that there are few young actresses better at playing independent young women, and gives us an acting turn that fits comfortably in her body of work. Uma Thurman is a wonderful actress who has a frustrating knack for picking bad roles, but that is not the case here. She's permitted to play a fully-developed and well-written character, and has some strong scenes. Additionally, the performance of Eva Ammuri as the young Maureen should not be neglected. Wood has a more expressive character in the film, but Ammuri is doing some subtle things here that impressed me.
The film's ending is sure to strike the wrong chord with some viewers, but I feel that it's a particularly fascinating and touching conclusion. The film requires some patience and trust from the viewer, but I think the ending we are given is rewarding enough to justify the investment we are asked to make.
The hi-def transfer here is frankly quite superb. As I mentioned earlier, this is a beautifully-photographed film, and it looks great in 1080p. The picture is pristine. Facial detail is superb and blacks are deep. I honestly can't complain about anything with this transfer, it's excellent. The sound is also very impressive, with really immersive sound design appearing during a few key sequences. Horner's score occasionally sinks to a low rumble that will make your room tremble.
There's a pretty generous batch of special features included on the disc. First up is an audio commentary from Perelman and production designer Maia Javan. As you might have guessed, this track tends to focus on some of the more technical details, but it's a good listen. "Flashback: The Life Before Her Eyes" is not a mere featurette, but a comprehensive 54-minute documentary on the making of the film. Interviews with the entire cast and crew are included, and the doc is considerably more insightful and in-depth than the average making-of piece. "Reflections Back and Beyond" is the most unusual feature, an 11-minute piece featuring interviews with people who claim to have had near-death experiences that gave them glimpses of strange things. I don't know how credible this is, but it's certainly interesting. There's also twelve minutes of deleted scenes, Eva Amurri's casting tape, an alternate ending that isn't really very different from the actual ending, a flower photo gallery, a flower montage, and a theatrical trailer. This is an impressive and diverse batch of supplements.
I disliked the casting of a young girl named Gabrielle Brennan who plays Thurman's daughter. Her performance is forced and unnatural, and sticks out like a sore thumb in this otherwise convincing film. I hate to be hard on a child actor like that, but frankly, I've seen a lot of other kids who could have played the role much more effectively. There are also just a couple of minor supporting characters hanging around the edges of the film that aren't quite as well-defined as one might hope.
This fine little drama is well worth your time. It got some reasonably positive reviews before quietly slipping out of theatres earlier this year, but I hope it finds some viewers as it hits DVD and Blu-ray. The Life Before Her Eyes is a mature, inventive and touching story that I highly recommend.
Review content copyright © 2008 Clark Douglas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (Widescreen)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Lossless Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 90 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Commentary w/Vadim Perelman & Maia Javan
* "Flashback: Behind The Life Before Her Eyes"
* "Reflections Back and Beyond"
* Deleted Scenes
* Alternate Ending
* Flower Gallery
* Flower Montage
* Eva Ammuri Caster Tape