Teen angst and adolescent problems have been very well documented in recent years on celluloid, with teen comedies and dramas popping up at a rate of knotts. One film that came from under the radar to receive much acclaim at the most recent Cannes Film Festival - and win the coveted Palme d'Or award - was Gus Van Sant's Elephant.
Van Sant, recently dabbling in indie cinema with the poorly-received Gerry, tells a story based on the horrific Columbine high school massacre of the '90s that rocked America and the world. An example of teen problems amplified into elephantine proportions, the two kids who shot dead their peers and teachers have now been propelled onto the big screen.
After Michael Moore's documentary Bowling for Columbine tried to ask why did such an event occur, Van Sant now shows what happened at the school on the fateful day - and just who was affected. Although the events in Elephant are not directly related to the real Columbine massacre, the names of the characters are similar and so is the way in which the tragedy unfolded.
Alex and Eric are a literal example of the spiralling hate and despair in youngsters these days, bullied and misunderstood by their classmates and teachers. Through their friendship and common interests, they hatch a plan to get even: and their school must pay.
I don't know the full story behind Columbine, although it was apparently fuelled by Nazi influence, violent video games and other such media that can corrupt people's minds nowadays. Van Sant doesn't dwell on answering why or how this happened, but does suggest that video games and the ease of ordering firearms in the US is partly to blame for their actions.
Elephant is a snapshot of a day at the high school in Oregon that all the characters attend, and through flashbacks and flashforwards the characters' individual quirks and troubles unfold. There isn't a main character per se, as each person becomes developed and rounded as the short running time allows. There are the popular kids, there are the intelligent kids, there are the isolated 'loners' - but Van Sant allows each person to become real onscreen, and not just some two-dimensional cliché.
The film's greatest strength is the chilling and unsettling feeling it gives you when the credits roll; there are no real answers or solutions offered to this increasing problem, but instead it tries to show you who is affected and how. It isn't gratuitous, but it does show the brutality and callousness that an event such as the Columbine massacre will possess.
Superbly directed - with even the cast of non-professional actors giving their all - this is an original and unnerving cinematic experience that deserves to be seen. People may not like it, but there is no denying Van Sant's skill and talent as a filmmaker in drawing the audience into the tragedy. Recommended.