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Staying after school to study 'Home Room's' cliches

The drama about a classroom shooting uses an unlikely relationship to probe the repercussions of a violent act.

September 05, 2003|Kevin Crust | Times Staff Writer

Imagine Anthony Michael Hall taking an Uzi to the rest of the cast of "The Breakfast Club," followed by a movie in which emotionally scarred survivors Ally Sheedy and Molly Ringwald spend a couple of hours discussing their feelings.

That's pretty much what you get with Paul F. Ryan's deadly earnest drama "Home Room," which explores the aftermath of a shooting at a suburban high school and the effect the tragedy has on two young women.

The film begins promisingly with a stylized opening featuring a black screen and silence suddenly shattered by the loud crack of an automatic weapon. When the gunfire stops, a shooter wearing black military-style boots backs slowly out of a classroom, stunned, until he slumps against a wall. We gradually realize that he is a police officer who has just killed the real shooter.

With nine dead, including the teenage gunman and his parents, the police investigation focuses on finding someone on whom to lay the blame. Det. Martin Van Zandt, played by "Alias' " Victor Garber, is charged with wrapping things up cleanly and quickly. His captain seems to be under pressure from local citizenry, but we never see this angry mob or any media. (In fact, the media is oddly absent from a story in which it would seem likely to have played a key part.)

Unlike other upcoming films, such as Gus Van Sant's "Elephant" or the faux-documentary "Zero Day," that take obvious inspiration from Columbine and other high-profile school shootings, those events aren't really what interest Ryan. The inciting incident here might as easily have been a car accident. The police investigation is pushed to the margins like frayed, discarded pages from a spiral notebook. Center stage is left to the relationship of the two girls. Unfortunately, neither the two main characters nor the machinations that bring them together are terribly credible.

The "basket case" in the scenario is Alicia, played by Busy Philipps (who did stints on "Freaks and Geeks" and "Dawson's Creek"), a goth loner who spits out defiant responses and dyes her hair blond after an interrogation that makes her the police's most likely scapegoat. She lives with her wheelchair-bound father and is desperate to graduate high school after mysteriously missing a year and a half.

The "rich girl" is Deanna (Erika Christensen), who sustained a head wound in the shooting but remains in the hospital suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome. The two are thrown together by the most contrived means possible, and it's difficult to buy into the scenario as they slowly chip away at one another's defenses. Alicia spends most of the film peering out through kohl-rimmed eyes, shaded by peroxide bangs, looking disarmingly like Daryl Hannah in "Blade Runner." Deanna is a more problematic character, a chatty anachronism who seems to have strolled in from another decade. This is a high school senior who watches Jay Leno and is never happier than when Alicia explains to her the true meaning of the Go-Go's "Our Lips Are Sealed."

Christensen gives a game performance, but it's miles from the excellent work she did in 2000's "Traffic," playing Michael Douglas' drug-addicted daughter. Philipps has the more interesting role here with better dialogue and a lot more subtext, but neither character ever transcends the John Hughes template.

The adults are thinly sketched and when they speak are saddled with lines such as, "High school's no place for kids anymore." The principal (James Pickens Jr.) takes an oddly adversarial approach toward the police, and Deanna's parents (Roxanne Hart and Richard Gilliland) seem to be under some strange narcotic that renders them completely devoid of personality, which may account for their daughter's weird cheerfulness.

It's become a cliche to say that a film about adolescents plays like an after-school special, but after-school is where we must go. With an unconscionably long running time of 2 hours and 11 minutes for what is essentially a two-hander between Philipps and Christensen, "Home Room" feels like detention -- without the possibility of recess.


'Home Room'

MPAA rating: R for strong language and some violent images

Times guidelines: No worse than the evening news, appropriate for mature teens

Busy Philipps...Alicia

Erika Christensen...Deanna

Victor Garber...Det. Martin Van Zandt

Raphael Sbarge...Det. Macready

Holland Taylor...Dr. Hollander

MOR Pictures presents a Benjamin Ormond production, released by DEJ Productions. Writer-director-editor Paul F. Ryan. Producer Benjamin Ormand. Cinematographer Rebecca Baehler. Costume designer Julia Bartholomew. Music Michael Shapiro. Production designer Johanna Vivstam. Running time: 2 hour, 11 minutes.

Exclusively at the Landmark Westside Pavilion, 10800 W. Pico Blvd., West L.A. (310) 281-8223.

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