In his sophomore feature Vadim Perelman attempts to act like M. Night Shyamalan, but “The Life Before Her Eyes” proves much less adept than “The Sixth Sense” was. Based on a novel by Laura Kasischke, it’s ostensibly the story of Diana McFee (Uma Thurman), the survivor of a Columbine-style school massacre who has to come to terms with the fifteenth anniversary of the event. A mom with a good husband (Peter Cullen) and an adorable, though sometimes willful, eight-year old daughter named Emma (Gabrielle Brennan) Diana is haunted by recollections of the close friendship she had as a loose, flirtatious teen (when she’s played by Evan Rachel Wood) with a girl very much unlike herself, the good-natured, religious Maureen (Eva Amurri). As we repeatedly see in fragments of a single horrifying scene, the two were accosted in a school restroom by the gunman (John Magaro), who threatens to kill only one of them but demands that they make the choice of which.
The film is divided fairly evenly between footage of Diana trying to cope with her memories and her child, and that showing the relationship developing between her younger self and Maureen, one marked by a sweet meeting of opposites only occasionally tested by disagreement, and by occasional crises like an unplanned pregnancy. But as the narrative goes on, the lines between the two parts of the story blur and merge, and various details in each don’t quite match up. If you’re watching closely—and take cognizance of the title—the twist at the close won’t be quite the surprise the makers had planned. More importantly, though, even if you haven’t foreseen it, you might find it a serious disappointment.
It wouldn’t be sporting to be too explicit about the tricks that “The Life Before Her Eyes” plays on the audience. Suffice it to say that they’re fair but, in the final analysis, more than a little irritating. Certainly that will be true as the film unspools, as you might well feel misused and deliberately misdirected. And it may be even more pronounced after it ends, unless you’re willing to accept that at the point of death something very extraordinary can happen.
But though the structure and denouement of “The Life Before Her Eyes” may cause consternation, it’s impossible to deny the craft with which it’s been put together. Wood gives another strong performance as the younger Diana, capturing the girl’s rough edges and vulnerability with equal skill, and Amurri complements her well, conveying Maureen’s niceness but her toughness, too. (Curiously, the extended scene they play against Magaro is among the weakest in the picture; the sense of terror isn’t caught as viscerally as one might expect.) Thurman is less successful, mostly because her role is necessarily more cloudy and her actions more opaque. As for the rest of the cast, the only really notable members as Brennan, who’s fine as the strangely edgy Emma, and Magaro, who doesn’t convincingly catch the rage of the shooter.
Technically the picture is solid, though the wooziness of Pawel Edelman’s cinematography, while part of Perelman’s method, can be off-putting, as can the similarly disorienting editing by David Baxter.
Perelman’s ambition in “The Life Before Her Eyes” is admirable; he’s obviously trying to tell this story in a distinctive and challenging way, and one always has to respect a director who wants his audience to do some work to understand what’s going on rather than simply being spoon-fed information. Unfortunately, he doesn’t quite pull off the trick.