Among the symptoms that characterized the jittery, scarcely remembered run-up to the millennium was the nightmare rash of high school massacres—most famously, Columbine. It was only a matter of time before these inexplicable Children of the Damned occurrences would be replayed in the movies, offering an alternative evil to the overused and no less fathomable serial killer.
This week, just in time for school and a month before Gus Van Sant’s Cannes winner Elephant premieres at the New York Film Festival, two Columbine movies are set to open—Zero Day and Home Room. Both first features, each ponders the enigma of adolescent nihilism, each critiques the compulsive yet fruitless quest for answers, and each, in its way, is utterly chaotic.
The more artful of the two, Zero Day opens with an appropriate burst of aggro rock and home-movie footage of a five-year-old’s birthday party. The 28-year-old filmmaker Ben Coccio uses a strategy not unlike that employed by The Blair Witch Project. Shot on DV, Zero Day is presented largely as a series of tapes produced by its protagonists, Andre (Andre Keuck) and Cal (Calvin Robertson). No less than the hapless Blair Witch hunters, these high school seniors—the self-proclaimed Army of Two—are both film subjects and filmmakers, first seen in their school parking lot announcing their project to the camera: “Let the countdown begin.”
Thereafter, Zero Day is a series of direct-address video communiqués in which Andre and Cal vent their grievances, display their arsenal of weapons, and elaborate on the project—as well as document such other occurrences as the removal of Cal’s braces. These tapes, placed in a safe deposit box, are left, as were videotaped suicide notes made by the Columbine killers, for parents and other authorities to find. The simulation of shaky camera amateur DV is a narrative ploy that often taxes the filmmakers’ ingenuity. Still, the movie has a creepy authenticity. The actual massacre aside, the most disturbing sequence documents a session of target practice—troubling not just because the boys are shooting up children’s toys but because they are obviously using live ammo. (The climax itself is recorded on a security camera, as actually happened at Columbine.)
Keuck and Robertson, both of whom have considerable experience as child actors, are convincing—not least in their primitive, mordant humor. Coccio’s most resonant directorial idea, however, is using the young actors’ actual parents to play their parents. Utterly natural and affectionate, yet unable to conceal their pride at being in the movie, the elder Keucks and Robertsons bring an element of complicity and cluelessness to their roles—totally different from Holly Hunter’s high-powered “acting” in the kindred youth horror film Thirteen. (All high school massacres have been committed by boys—and with its emphasis on piercing, cutting, and other forms self-abuse, Thirteen suggests that girls typically turn such adolescent rage on themselves.)
Zero Day takes the radical position that motive doesn’t matter: “There are no reasons,” the boys declare in their final message to their parents. Evil is existential. Nevertheless, like Van Sant, Coccio can’t resist referencing the last century’s ultimate bummer. Not only is Andre the child of German immigrants but the guys flash a subliminal swastika and make a bonfire of their books, DVDs, and video games. (Destroying motive is equated with destroying reason.) The Nazi comparison is not totally unwarranted. Each high school massacre affected its community—if not all America—with the stunning irrationality of a mini holocaust. Zero Day may not explain the reason such crimes are committed but it successfully defines evil as willful cruelty compounded by enormous self-absorption; that is, pain inflicted in the emotional vacuum left by a frightening lack of empathy, and the total absence of remorse.
More earnest and old-fashioned, Home Room unfolds in the aftermath of a high school shooting and, unlike Zero Day or Elephant, focuses on the surviving victims rather than the dead perps. The event itself appears only in fragmentary images; writer-director Paul F. Ryan prefers to lavish attention on the relationship between the traumatized goody-goody Deanna (Erika Christensen, the bad girl in Traffic) and the surly, pierced “Goth metal-head ramp-tramp bookworm” Alicia (TV actress Busy Philipps) who may or may not have had prior knowledge of the lone shooter’s plans.
Deanna and Alicia establish a two-person breakfast club even as a glum police detective prophetically or parodically called Van Zandt trolls around town wondering whether he can book Alicia as an accomplice before the fact: She’s motive personified. The endless blah-blah in frugally empty, consistently overlit institutional settings (school, hospital, station house, morgue) exerts its own horrible fascination. Home Room is badly acted and, running well over two hours, often mind-numbingly ponderous. Depressed rather than hysterical, it’s in every way less clever and more literal-minded than Zero Day. For that very reason, it’s far crazier in considering a question without an answer.