(Editor's note: This review originally ran during AFI Dallas. It's being rerun this weekend in conjunction with the film's release.)
I loved House of Sand and Fog, and I've been waiting five long years to see what director Vadim Perelman would come up with next. His latest effort, The Life Before Her Eyes, starring Uma Thurman, Evan Rachel Wood and Eva Amurri, is a lovely, nuanced film packed with imagery, and bracketed by an intriguing storyline. The film revolves around Diana, played as a teenager by Wood and an adult by Thurman; the younger Diana was a survivor of a high school shooting, as as the 15-year anniversary of the tragic event nears, the older Diana begins to unravel.
Perelman is not a director who hand-feeds his audience easy answers. With House of Sand and Fog he made heavy use of its moody, gray and brown pallette to set a dark and unsettling mood. With The Life Before Her Eyes, he turns to brilliantly saturated hues of flowers and water to create a sublime tone that evokes what's going on with Diana. The perfect life with professor husband Paul (Brett Cullen) and daughter Emma (Gabrielle Brennan) that she's worked so hard to create is a fairy tale fantasy built on an unstable foundation of unresolved guilt, and we know from the first frames that, hard as she works to sustain it, it's as fragile as the petals of the flowers that embower her garden.
The film, like the novel of the same name by Laura Kasischke from which it's adapted, is more poetry than prose, and like all good poetry, the answers lie more in the spaces between the words than in the words themselves. Perelman floats us back and forth between past and present, dropping clues along the way as to what's really going on with Diana, but leaving it up to the viewer to unravel the puzzle as Diana herself falls apart.
Although Thurman turns in her usual reliable performance, the strength of the film is built on the friendship between the wild, reprehensible younger Diana, brought beautifully to life by Wood, and her serious, more responsible friend Maureen, played by Amurri. Wood, of course, is a remarkable young actress, and has been at least since her breakthrough role in 2003's Thirteen. I have yet to see her in a role where her performance hasn't bolstered the film, and she plays Diana as a tough girl on the surface with a core of heartbreaking vulnerability. She can't quite seem to grasp that she deserves to have a friendship with a girl like Maureen, and constantly tests the boundaries of Maureen's love for her.
More surprising is Amurri's performance as good girl Maureen. Amurri has a streak of her mother Susan Sarandon's sass and strength in her that's played well in films like Saved!, where she plays more of a bad girl. In The Life Before Her Eyes, Perelman casts her against expectation as the sweet, innocent friend to the tougher Diana, and Amurri proves herself more than up to the task of this challenging role. The love and friendship between the girls never feels trite or forced. In a scene that replays throughout the film, Diana and Maureen are in the girls' bathroom when they hear gunshots. As the realization of what they're hearing play out behind that closed door hits them, their fear feels real and palpable.
The film is beautifully shot and the production design is impeccably thought out. Everything, from the flowers to the water to heart on Diana's scrapbook, is there for a reason, though it likely will take more than one viewing to see just where all those little pieces fit into place. Perelman is a meticulous director, and the cut shown here at AFI Dallas is different, so I'm told, from the cut that was shown at Toronto, with clues that were revealed more obviously in that version edited just enough to make them less apparent now in an initial viewing.
Audiences used to having everything spelled out for them may find the film too much work, but there are, I hope and believe, many people who appreciate and enjoy unraveling the mysteries of a poem or painting for themselves. Those people will find much to savor in The Life Before Her Eyes. The film comes out in limited release on April 18, with a wider release on April 25, and I'd suggest seeing it on the big screen, at least on the first viewing. This is the kind of artful filmmaking you can really sink your teeth into, sitting back and letting the imagery wash over you in waves, and then mull over all of its myriad details again and again. I'd expect the director's commentary on the DVD to be intriguing, but I kind of hope Perelman doesn't decide to spell everything out too clearly; like a good poem, it might be best to just let the audience find its hidden secrets for themselves.