The fact that I didn't understand a film, that its ending can be interpreted at least two ways and maybe three – all likely to be “true” – usually sends me growling in disgust from the theater. But “The Life Before Her Eyes” has grown on me in memory.
It begins with a Columbine-like shooting in the early 1990s, years before U.S. high schools trembled at the likelihood of gunfire in hallways.
Naughty Diana (Raleigh's Evan Rachel Wood) and more upright Maureen (Eva Amurri) are chatting in a bathroom when they hear the chatter of a semi-automatic weapon. Diana knows the killer; she laughingly ignored him when he told her he would slay their classmates. Now he bursts through the door, planning to shoot one and let the other live.
We fast-forward to grown Diana (Uma Thurman), who's ill at ease on the 15th anniversary of the deaths. The town is erecting a memorial to the victims, dredging up unhappy memories, and her marriage to an older man is crumbling under her suspicions of infidelity. She's most troubled by her young daughter's inexplicable disappearances for long periods.
The obvious explanation for Diana's perennial anxiety is guilt: She survived the assault, while well-liked Maureen volunteered to take a bullet. But debut screenwriter Emil Stern, who adapted Laura Kasischke's novel of the same name, layers on alternative meanings that send us in different directions. Meanwhile, second-time director Vadim Perelman (“House of Sand and Fog”) keeps revising the first scene in flashbacks from Diana's memory.
Studio movies rarely depict Christians as fallible, thoughtful people who've been strengthened by faith but don't take it for granted. Yet that's Maureen, who wishes Diana would leave drugs and pre-marital sex alone but is drawn to her friend's intelligence and sociability. Maureen gets her points across without sermonizing, though she's unable to divert Diana from a dangerous path.
Diana's a more conventional character on the surface, a girl who lacks parental guidance and self-esteem and has drifted into self-destructive behavior. But conscience stirs in her, and she's capable of unexpected things.
The film's original title, “In Bloom,” referred to the two girls, who are just about to turn 18. But Perelman and cinematographer Pawel Edelman (Oscar-nominated for “The Pianist”) apply it to the whole world. They give us close-ups of bright flowers, insects, trees, to remind us that the planet is perpetually in a cycle of decay and renewal. Human beings, too, can make choices every day that turn their lives around.
The acting is fine, especially from the younger pair, though it's silly to imagine the slender Wood could grow into the Valkyrie-like Thurman (without cosmetic enhancements, anyway).
I happened to interview Wood two days after the screening at the Toronto International Film Festival last September, and she confirmed that the interpretation I'd finally settled on was the one the director intended. “But maybe it doesn't matter if people think about it in other ways,” she suggested. In this case, she's right.