When the big twist is revealed at the end of "The Life Before Her Eyes," you might think the only way to appreciate its cleverness is to see the film again.
I did that.
It didn't help.
No matter what you know or can guess before it happens onscreen, this disappointing adaptation of Laura Kasischke's much-praised novel turns out to be tedious at best. Right from the flowery title sequence it feels stripped of its source material's creative edge. And what's left would be hard to swallow even if it didn't have Uma Thurman playing the grown-up version of Evan Rachel Wood.
Directed by Vadim Perelman, who turned some heads with his stylish 2003 adaptation of Andre Dubus III's "House of Sand and Fog," this latest movie springs from a repetitive, unilluminating screenplay by first-timer Emil Stern.
Wood stars as Diana, a rebellious teenager whose life is dramatically altered by a Columbine-type massacre that she witnesses up close, in the company of her goody-goody best friend, Maureen (Eva Amurri). Viewers meet them as the tragedy is about to happen, then the colors of their friendship slowly get filled in while the film teases out details of the event. At the same time, the story jumps ahead to Diana's life as a much more responsible and angular-faced adult (yes, Thurman).
In the high school scenes, the two girls argue over boys, invade the neighbors' swimming pool, and handily provide a virgin-whore pairing so obvious that even the characters acknowledge "we're like the whole female art history" - stuffed neatly into bikinis, one might add. Not surprisingly, the girls' fates are also intertwined; they're cornered by the gunman in a school restroom, where he demands that they make a wrenching choice.
As a guilt-ridden grown-up, Diana is a strangely one-dimensional figure who struggles to keep a lid on her emotions when the 15th anniversary of the massacre approaches and her own young daughter turns increasingly rebellious. The two Dianas feel disconnected, but (potential spoiler alert) not only for reasons intended by the filmmakers. The gulf between Wood and Thurman isn't so much mysterious and unsettling as it is annoying. Consequently, clues that should be intriguing fall flat, and observations about the thin line between reality and imagination begin to sound preachy.
Meanwhile Perelman indulges his fondness for flashes of lightning and other heavy-handed imagery (ants on a dead bird, flowers blooming and bowing to rain) which even the semiconscious mind generally does a better job of editing.
It's all an unnecessary distraction. "The Life Before Her Eyes" might offer a fresh perspective on aborted dreams, but its insights are buried under stale, inflated moviemaking.
Life is always too short for that.