Expectations unmet, time wasted, an abiding sense of irritation: These are the primary consolations of The Life Before Her Eyes, a sour and silly puzzle film with delusions of literary grandeur.
Diana (Evan Rachel Wood) and Maureen (Eva Amurri) are 17-years-old, best friends, and not at all alike. Diana is the wild child, who smokes pot, sleeps with boys, and is a regular fixture in the principal’s office; Maureen is the good girl, who goes to church, does her homework, and views the other sex with terrified wonder. The mismatched friends are chatting away in the girl’s bathroom at school one morning when they hear gunfire and screaming in the hallway outside. Before long, the architect of the mayhem, a scraggly teen with an automatic weapon, joins them in the lavatory and offers them a choice: He’s going to kill one of them, but only one, and they will get to decide which. (Why the boy, who had been slaughtering indiscriminately, is suddenly so discerning is a mystery the film declines to plumb.)
Flash forward fifteen years, and Diana (now played by Uma Thurman) is a thirtysomething art teacher racked with unresolved guilt about the long-past school shooting and maternal anxiety for a troubled daughter of her own, Emma (Gabrielle Brennan), a blonde moppet with a proclivity for hiding and running away. The movie flips back and forth between these time frames for its duration: young Diana getting in trouble (and frequently being bailed out by Maureen); older Diana worrying about her daughter, about the upcoming anniversary of the shooting, about her marriage.
'The Life Before Her Eyes'
We’re treated to such pleasures as a botched abortion, a minor car accident, intimations of infidelity, and a thudding parade of Hallmark-level metaphors. Early on, one of the girls notes that, “If we’re, like, 70 percent water, then there’s, like, no boundaries,” and virtually every subsequent scene is soggy with aquatic references—rain, sprinklers, swimming pools, burst pipes, and on and on. (Similarly, I lost track of the numbers of times we were informed that “the heart is the strongest muscle.”)
But it always returns, again and again, to the school lavatory, and the two crying girls alone with their Sophie’s Choice gunboy. What will they decide? What does the older Diana have to feel so guilty about?
The answer is obvious, but in the end it is not the answer. Having steered us hamfistedly toward a dull and dismal conclusion, director Vadim Perelman veers at the last moment to offer an ending even worse than the one we’d been anticipating. I won’t say what it is (though trust me, this is a film that merits spoiling), merely that it will be familiar to fans of the old “Twilight Zone” and of Ambrose Bierce, and to those who pay attention to the Zombies oldie that Perelman plays on no fewer than three occasions. I will note, though, that some unpleasant experiences, however brief in duration (The Life Before Her Eyes clocks in at under 90 minutes), can seem to last a lifetime.