The first entry in the Crash subgenre sweepstakes, Aric Avelino’s ambitious dependie follows the Paul Haggis award magnet’s business plan pretty slavishly: Take on a contemporary social crisis (here, gun control) by way of multiple story lines, each illuminating different perspectives on the problem, and each juiced with frustration, melodrama, and mid-level-cast acting fireworks. An angsty breeze in the tradition of old Playhouse 90 issue dramas, Avelino’s film occupies three states, but holds its ground best in Oregon, where a Columbine- like massacre still plagues a town several years later. In a structural gambit that’s easy to underestimate, the protagonists there are a working-class mother (Marcia Gay Harden) of one of the dead shooters and his younger brother (a teen–John Cusack–mopey Chris Marquette), both of whom bristle with mis- placed guilt in a social whorl that considers them somehow responsible. The film’s crescendo happens out of nowhere: A passing activist plants a black flag in Harden’s lawn, precipitating a spitting word-fight in the street with her brutally accusatory neighbors.
Otherwise, Avelino seems timid about conflict, and not all of his concepts (co-written with Steve Bagatourian) are eloquent. The other tangents (Linda Cardellini’s Virginian coed getting edgy after a friend is date-raped, Forest Whitaker’s Chicago principal losing his grip on his job) are aimless, seemingly de-ruddered by Avelino’s desire to belie story expectations; you’re buckling up for an Inspirational Death once promising but streetwise student Arlen Escarpeta resorts to painting a toy gun black to defend himself, but it’s a feint. All of the stories are conceived as ongoing plights, and have no third act. Which would be an improvement on Haggis’s hyperbolic civics lesson if Avelino had the chops to master realism and embrace ambivalence. The acting is pro enough to keep your blood up, but the reverb is minimal.