A few years ago, in Elephant, Gus Van Sant told an arty, fictionalized account of the Columbine shootings that did more than just not look for answers. It positively frustrated you with how it didn't try.
That's become the modus operandi for movies about high school gun violence: Be at once recondite and transparent, so people will ponder the opaque clarity of it all. Why does it happen, how does it happen, how can it happen? When the "good kid" does it, the answer is always "we just didn't see it coming." And when it's the moody, alienated, troubled kid, the answer is "how could we not have known?"
Aric Avelino's American Gun bathes in well-intended melancholy, from the furtive words of its opening voice -- the mother of a teen-ager who shot up his high school -- to the plaintive piano music that stalks its characters, in three cities, as it tells thematically interwoven stories about guns and the aftermath of using them. The cast, too, sets you up to expect something serious: We know these good actors from theater, TV and Oscar night. They obviously came together to make this little movie, by a first-time director, because they believed in it.
In suburban Oregon: It's the three-year anniversary of the day a good kid took a gun to school and killed some of his classmates. The shooter's single mother (Marcia Gay Harden) accepts money and gives a tabloid-TV interview that makes her look responsible for what happened. She loses her job, and her surviving son has to leave his expensive private school. The troubled policeman (Tony Goldwyn) who couldn't save kids during the shooting, and who's been repressing his remorse, sees the program and angrily calls the TV station.
In Chicago: A dedicated principal (Forest Whitaker) in a mostly black urban school helps kids work through their problems. "It doesn't make things go away," he tells a kid who brings a gun to school. "It does what you saw." A high-achieving student, one of the principal's favorites, hangs out with a buddy after school, talking about country music and how the brain works. He also has a gun, which he needs to protect himself at his night job.
At the University of Virginia: A college undergrad (Linda Cardellini), bored with school and with her part-time job in the gun shop owned by her grandfather (Donald Sutherland), saves a drunken friend from rape at a party. She gets some scars herself when she intervenes, and soon she goes shopping for a gun.
The actors seize these meaty roles and chew on them well, especially Harden, whose character has some searing moments with her son (promising newcomer Chris Marquette). Avelino tells his story concisely, in 95 minutes, with ancillary themes and ideas winnowing through it all. But finally, American Gun is about the phenomenal, not the inexplicable: We see the danger everywhere, and we go on as if it will simply fix itself. How can we think it's OK to sell liquor late at night in a crime-addled city neighborhood -- and to hire a high school kid to do it? Avelino builds his drama nicely, from the thoroughly transparent to the interestingly lucid, almost daring us to say that we still don't know what's wrong.
An ending is always the most difficult part for any writer, especially with difficult material. And when a dramatist tells three stories at once, he gives himself room to draw three conclusions without seeming to equivocate. Despite an inevitable, predictable and wholly unnecessary random act of climactic violence, American Gun finally feels like a moment-of-truth TV drama, where the characters settle upon a clarity that calms them down or offers them some release, even if it doesn't solve very much.
For mother and son, it's the realization that they both feel "tired." For granddad and the college student, it's her confession that the gun shop has always felt "weird" to her. And for the principal, Avelino invents his finest set piece, a moment both literal and symbolic: On the ceiling tiles of his office, a stain reoccurs, but rather than finding the cause, the principal just moves tiles around to cover it up. You can equate the stain with blood if you like, but it doesn't matter. The point is that we can't just look at something obvious and then think we've fixed it by putting it out of sight. For that distillation alone, American Gun is worth the time.