Zero Day and Home Room (review)

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Shot by Shot

These kids today — I don’t understand them. I mean, when I was in high school, kids got picked on. There were weirdoes that no one wanted to hang out with, freaks that everyone made fun of. There was taunting and teasing and ostracizing galore. And surely there were just as many guns around in the 1980s, when I was in high school, as there are today, less than 20 years later. So what’s so different that kids are suddenly killing each other over things we shrugged off when I was a kid?

I don’t have the answer — I’m not sure that anyone really knows why. But this reality — kids are killing kids over bullying — is explored, from opposite ends of the experience, in two new grim, sharply caustic films.

Ben Coccio’s chilling mockumentary Zero Day takes the form of the video diaries of a self-styled “Army of Two” as they plan a Columbine-style massacre at their high school. Andre (Andre Keuck) and Cal (Calvin Robertson) are terrifyingly calm and rational in their monologues to the camera or as they lead the viewer on a tour of their preparations that begin the summer before their senior year. They know they will not be graduating — they’re consciously speaking to the future, to a future in which their rampage through the school, ending in their suicides, has already happened. “It’s gonna be unreal,” says Cal, “it’s gonna be beautiful.”

But there’s not a lot of glee in what we see. Instead, they’re desperate not to be seen as stupid — they’re gonna be smart about it, they’ve studied Columbine and other school shootings and they won’t make the same mistakes the others have made. They’re going about their plan in a methodical, paramilitary way. They’re not crazy — in fact, there’s a sense of the inevitable about the whole thing, like this is simply of fact of life today for teenagers, that someone is destined to shoot up every school. Of course that’s not the case… unless the kids really do feel this way, and then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The power of Zero Day is its banality: the presentation of the video camera to Andre by his beaming parents on his 18th birthday, so proud of their son, so unaware of what he intends to use the camera for; Cal getting his braces off and his mother so happy with his beautiful teeth, the payoff on an investment in a future for her son that will never happen. These are normal kids, normal families — no one wears horns or black hats. The catalog Cal and Andre’s grievances, the annoyances fueling their hatred, are so petty as to be the stuff of everyday life for teenagers: how the popular football jock gets away with drinking and driving, how Andre is labeled a “faggot,” how everyone is an “asshole.” It’s ordinary stuff, however depressing and unfortunate. So why are these two kids driven to homicide? “Fuck the reasons,” they say. “There are none.” And that’s the scariest aspect of it all.

Zero Day is entirely about giving voice to cold-blooded killers — Home Room gives them no voice at all. Instead, writer/director Paul F. Ryan gives us the trauma of the aftermath, in the intersection where grief meets rage, where physical recovery is hard enough and full psychological recovery may well be impossible. Dismal but not disheartening, this tale of picking up the pieces is as cutting as those pieces can be and as satisfying as cleaning up the mess.

A shooting in a high school home room leaves a bunch of kids dead, the gunman shot and killed by cops, and one wounded survivor. Deanna Cartwright (Erika Christensen: The Banger Sisters, Traffic), her skull grazed by a bullet, languishes in the hospital. The police are looking for someone to blame, and Detective Martin Van Zandt (Victor Garber: Tuck Everlasting, Legally Blonde) focuses on Alicia Browning (Busy Philipps), a friend of the gunman who escaped the shooting unharmed. The school principal (James Pickens Jr.: A Slight Case of Murder), recognizing a kinship in the two girls that they don’t see themselves, insists Alicia, a tormented loner shunned by the other students, visit Deanna, a perky overachiever, Miss Popularity from a wealthy family.

It’s not exactly a match made in heaven, and Alicia has to be dragged to it, but Deanna knows immediately that Alicia is the only one who can understand why she, Deanna, can’t sleep and can’t get well enough to go home. The marked difference in the girls’ reactions to being under fire — Alicia cracks jokes, makes snide remarks, and is generally the same disaffected wiseass she was before the shooting; Deanna is off-balance, her self-confidence shattered — shows us the full spectrum of the grieving process. Something horrible had befallen Alicia a year or two back, the principal and Van Zandt sense instinctively, though neither is sure what — Alicia is Deanna, two years after. Unless Alicia can keep Deanna from turning hard and cold. Unless Deanna can bring Alicia back from that hard, cold place.

If the material connection (apart from the shooting, that is) between Alicia and Deanna in the present turns out to be a bit too convenient, and Alicia’s traumatic past a bit too melodramatic, that can be forgiven. For the reluctant psychological connection between them is adeptly examined in what is a remarkably clear-eyed and unsentimental depiction of what it takes not to “get over” a severe ordeal but what it takes to assimilate it into our lives and learn to live with it instead of forgetting it. It’s a realistic message of the measures of hope we can all pull from the worst of disasters.

Zero Day
viewed at home on a small screen
not rated
official site | IMDB

Home Room
viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics
rated R for strong language and some violent images
official site | IMDB

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