Review: Elephant (Van Sant, 2003)

Still from the movie Elephant

I expected to like this film much more than I did. Elephant won the Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or in 2003, and Van Sant has a reputation for being a filmmaker worth watching, even if I don’t remember why. Yet, when I researched his filmography, none of his movies jumped out at me as being particularly commendable, except perhaps the conventionally made Good Will Hunting.

Elephant, however, is anything but conventional. It is structured around one fateful school day, the camera hovering behind different high schoolers, following them through the halls, classes, cafeteria, bathroom conversations, and even home for lunch. Time folds and bends as we see scenes repeated over and over again from different perspectives, certain sounds augmented or faded to reflect the subject’s frame of mind. The narrative structure is as loose and meandering as the film’s chronology, and sequences are spare, slow, often nearly silent–except when Beethoven’s dramatic Moonlight Sonata or Für Elise plays through certain scenes.

All that is fine. What I couldn’t stomach was the bad acting and unnatural poses and dialogue of the teenagers in the film. Van Sant seems to have casted mostly “real” kids (some who have gone on to have small-time acting careers), and it shows in the stiff way the actors conduct themselves. Instead of kids being kids, they are kids being directed to conform to an adult’s idea of a kid. For a moment I thought it’d been so long since I’d been with teenagers that I’d forgotten how they behaved, but then in watching the “On the Set” DVD extra and seeing footage of the actors messing around between shoots, I thought, “Ah yes, now this I recognize!”

It isn’t just the wooden acting but the artificial-seeming dialogue and attitudes. It is as if Van Sant has taken a caricature of what he remembers or has heard about high school and tried to represent each “type” in his film: the good-looking jock and his equally gorgeous girlfriend, the popular bully, the trio of shopping-obsessed bulimics, the awkward girl, the gun-obsessed loser boiling a secret rage. These types may be common enough, but without detail and personality they’re nothing more than empty sketches. If this film is supposed to humanize one of the less comprehensible phenomena of modern American society, it fails utterly. It is little more than a series of artfully constructed clips, something I would expect to see playing in a corner of a modern art museum.

It could be that Elephant rode the wave of astonishment and pain following Columbine as the world tried to puzzle its way to some kind of understanding. If that’s true, in 2014 it feels quite simplistic, quite dated.