Writer-director Gus Van Sant stretches the lexicon of filmmaking with a
stylized technique of cinematic storytelling outside the known genre norms.
His camera fluidly and sometimes lyrically follows students in a high school
in very long takes, watching as they go about their activities and giving us
a surface idea of who they are and how they experience the high school
phenomenon. That their experience will become unique in some way is best
left for you to discover in the final act.
John (John Robinson) needs to bring his dad (Timothy Bottoms) under control
when dad's driving demonstrates that he's once more been nipping the bottle,
a reality that grips John with sadness as he arranges for his brother to
help. Once again he makes himself late for class and has to deal with a
worsening attendance record and an unsympathetic administrator.
Eli (Elias McConnell) is pursuing still photography and takes photographs of
a young punk-style couple in the park and of John during a brief meeting in
the hall. After developing his film in the school darkroom, he pursues other
School hunk Nate (Nathan Tyson) leaves the football field to meet up with
gorgeous girlfriend Carrie (Carrie Finklea), stirring waves of feminine
interest as he passes an inseperable trio of girls hanging in the hallway,
Brittany, Jordan and Nicole. We pick this group up later as they make their
way to the cafeteria, gossiping and arguing about the depth of their
Alex (Alex Frost) goes home and practices piano. He and video game playing
buddy Eric (Eric Deulen) hang out until a package arrives that will cause
them to return to school later to carry out a plan.
Painfully inward Michelle (Kristen Hicks) gets chewed out about not wearing
standard shorts for gym and rushes to her volunteer job in the library.
Time cutting these extended vignettes brings us to encounters we've seen
before from different perspectives, all of it adding up to a sense of an
almost typical school day for these characters we see in sliced up streams of
John is leaving to find dad when he passes Alex and Eric returning to school
in strange apparel. Michelle rushes past Eli photographing John in order to
get to the library. There's a checkerboard pattern to it, and an experience
with a filmmaker trying something new and different. It somehow fits the
subject matter. It doesn't get into psychology or character depth but it
doesn't try to. In fact, it makes a point of avoiding it, as though
behavioral motivation is a cliche.
The idea is for you to have a knowledge of these kids as they deal with
individual experience. High school can be educational, stimulating, boring,
lonely, friendly, romantic and traumatic. In this variety, Van Sant makes a
case for something we already knew while his main message seems to be that
what we know about a person will not necessarily anticipate extreme behavior.
Stereotyping is not to be trusted. But, in over-promoting this notion,
Van Sant distorts the validity of profiling, something that occasionally
proves useful in a law enforcement context.
After seeing "Elephant", you may feel that an important dimension is missing,
like unlying causality. Or, you may take its "this is how it is" approach as
adequately illuminating and complete. Van Sant had his Director of
Photography Harris Savides wisely use 35mm film and natural light, supporting
the consistent tone of naturalism among his cast of mostly first time non-pro
actors. The intricate steadicam work was tirelessly executed by Matias
The title's derivation, according to press notes, is twofold. One
interpretation is that it comes from the phrase, "it's like an elephant in
your living room -- it can't be ignored", a concept that applies here. The
other, equally applicable, is the story about the blind men who each feel a
different part of an elephant and come up with their individual conclusions
about what it is. Doesn't that describe the high school experience?
Van Sant is not a director with a long filmography. But a glance at his
films will tell you that he's one to watch. My vote goes to his more
scripted efforts, like the worthy "Finding Forrester" and the virtuous "Good
The miscalculation that was the remake of "Psycho" may have jarred his
career flight momentum, but the consistency in his output is a creative
intelligence that exploits strong character development within firm story
structure. "Elephant" is a fine experiment, one that will not be universally
successful or critically applauded. It may have won him the Palme D'or and
Best Director awards at the Cannes Film Festival, but its festival appealing
style and subject matter is not likely to transfer well into mainstream
~~ Jules Brenner