Vadim Perelman, who adapted the critically acclaimed House of Sand and Fog, follows up his directorial debut with another literary adaptation, unfortunately not likely to be as well-regarded. The Life Before Her Eyes on paper perhaps seemed to have everything going for it: heightened drama, timely social issues, and complex roles for female actors. However, when realized from Laura Kasischke's novel into an hour-and-a-half feature film, Before Her Eyes fails to penetrate. Frankly, this melodrama would have been better suited for the small screen as a Lifetime movie.
Uma Thurman stars as the seemingly secure Diana, who 15 years after surviving a Columbine-like high school shooting continues to be haunted by this traumatic event. Diana's adult life appears picture-perfect: a loving husband (Brett Cullen); a precocious 8-year-old daughter (Gabrielle Brennan); a steady career as an art history teacher, and a house straight out of a Pottery Barn catalog. Despite such comforts, Diana has been losing sleep over that fateful day when a fellow teen opened fire on campus. Jumping back and forth between past and present, we learn that Diana was once a wild child, whose life could have gone in a decidedly different direction, if not for her near-death experience.
The talented Evan Rachel Wood plays the outwardly cocky, inwardly insecure 17-year-old Diana, and although this is not new territory for the actor, Wood is appropriately cast, and the camera loves her. Even more committed to the work, Thurman turns out the best acting she's done in years. It's also refreshing to see Thurman aging gracefully, unlike many actors her age. The only problem is that it's a tough sell to buy Wood and Thurman as physically the same character, a decade-and-a-half apart.
More distracting is the pairing of Wood and Eva Amurri, as the teenage Diana's best friend, Maureen. Amurri is convincing enough in this good-girl role, or as Maureen describes herself, the virgin to Diana's whore. The problem is that Amurri's raw talent is not enough to sustain her performance. Her delivery lacks conviction; her voice is devoid of resonance. The daughter of Susan Sarandon, Amurri inherited her mother's huge, luminous eyes and knockout body, but beyond physical attributes, there's little resemblance. Perhaps it is unfair to compare such talents, but Amurri will need to considerably up her game to have any longevity as an actor.
At the end of the day, what diminishes this film -- more than the mismatched pairings of actors -- is the heavy-handedness of Emil Stern's script and Perelman's direction. When Wood's Diana says, "I didn't know what the human condition was," and Maureen's world-weary mother replies, "Well, you will soon enough," it leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. Likewise, Perelman too often treats the audience like a child who needs to be spoon-fed. It's not enough to see the pain on Wood's face after she's gone through with an abortion; the filmmaker follows that up with an unnecessary scene in which Diana pauses at a pro-life display of crosses of the unborn; and worse, she locates the name of her daughter-who-never-was/later daughter-to-be, Emma. The story also neglects to tie up loose ends, leaving more questions than it does resolutions. While there's nothing wrong with a movie ending in ambiguity, The Life Before Her Eyes denies the audience what it and Diana most deserve: a sense of closure.
Directed by: Vadim Perelman
Written by: Emil Stern
Starring: Uma Thurman, Evan Rachel Wood, Eva Amurri, Brett Cullen
Opens April 18