Title: Bang Bang You're Dead
Year of Release: 2002
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Date Viewed: June 6th, 2010
Almost exactly a year ago, I was enrolled in a public speaking course at my local college which is the academic equivalent of getting a root canal. For one assignment, we were instructed to present a ten-minute speech in a persuasive style. Meaning that we had to convince our audience (the other classmates) that our viewpoint on an issue was correct. I chose to rally behind a workers union for professional wrestlers. Perhaps I will present a variation of that speech for a future post. Another classmate called attention to violence in schools and demanded that more care be taken from parents and faculty members to prevent further conflicts. As a companion to her speech, she also issued everyone a copy of an obscure film that I had never before heard of: Bang Bang You're Dead. She claimed that this movie represented a realistic portrayal of what some students can go through and why they often do not find the help they need.
After a year of having this disc in my possession, I finally gave it a watch this past Sunday night. When it finished, I felt very sad for two different reasons. Reason 1, the movie was too important to not get a wider release. Reason 2, I never saw this classmate again and did not have a chance to thank her for introducing this gem to me.
Bang Bang You're Dead first premiered on premium cable television. The majority of the film is seen through the eyes of Trevor (Ben Foster), an average high school student save for the fact that he threatened to bomb his school and its football team in the previous year. This would be enough to earn most folks a permanent expulsion from school, but he is miraculously given another chance to stay thanks to his counselors and his film teacher (Tom Cavanagh) who campaign for his reinstatement. Fortunately, this is really the only time that the movie asks us to suspend our disbelief.
Throughout the movie, Trevor interacts with what I like to call "believable stereotypes", the best thing the movie has going for itself. We have seen these characters before, but rarely do we see them as realistically portrayed as in Bang Bang You're Dead. There are the jocks; gifted athletes that abuse their natural strength to stir fear into the hearts of those less fortunate. There are the troggs; outcasts that wear dark clothing and never stray too far from their comrades. The neglecting parents; those that care for their son/daughter but cannot relate to how his/her mind works. And then there's the kind-hearted teacher; the character type first made famous by Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society but is perfected here by Tom Cavanagh's performance.
Trevor's threat to detonate his problems away were the result of a war between his gang of troggs against their jock enemies. Everyone knows he was behind it and his fellow classmates constantly refer to him as "the terrorist."
What his peers don't know about Trevor is that he has a fondness for filming anything and everything using his trusty hidden portable camera. His footage will later prove to be critically important in advancing the plot forward and allowing the audience to fully sympathize with this troubled teenager. Trevor captures footage of the jocks stuffing people (including himself) into trash cans, lockers and even urinals while they also using derogatory slurs to insult their victims. All the while, none of the school's faculty seem to have any awareness of these happenings.
While Trevor continues to suffer through psychological torture, his film and drama instructor Mr. Duncan tries to get a new project off the ground; a new stage play he's written titled Bang Bang You're Dead. The play is aimed toward teenagers and its goal is to explore what goes through the minds of the attackers and victims in an environment where bullying drives someone to murder. Aware of his history, Mr. Duncan offers the lead role to Trevor. He feels that Trevor would play the part well and hopes it may also serve as a healing process to bring closure to the events of last year.
The play seems to be of little help to Trevor who is still hanging out with the wrong crowd. He soon considers settling the score once and for all....
I was impressed with how authentic the stage play scenes were. The style was perfectly simple and the acting was very much like what you would see in typical high school productions. Then I found out that the blocking and dialogue was taken directly from a real stage play first performed in 1999. Much like how it is seen in the movie, the play was received with criticism from outraged parents that didn't understand its purpose. Footage of the original performance can be seen during the end credits.
No doubt many viewers will be shocked at the behavior demonstrated by the antagonists. Are today's schools really like this? They certainly can be. The movie rightly points out how much conflict can occur when the proper authorities are not looking in the right direction. Viewers will be further shocked to discover that the movie blurs the antagonist line brilliantly. It is not a good guys versus bad guys story. With the possible exception of Mr. Duncan, all characters are flawed and are not given the proper guidance to enrich their lives. This environment is not uncommon and that's the message this film tries to get across.
The film is not without its flaws however. The psychological torture montages are well executed, but since a great deal of it is seen through Trevor's camera, it made me wonder why he didn't present this evidence to the appropriate party sooner. He was obviously hurting. So why did he have to keep it to himself and use it as a last will testament. I suppose an argument could be made that he wanted people to feel sorry for him, but I don't see how anyone could not feel sorry for him when that footage is viewed at ANY setting.
I was also annoyed at the recurring jabs toward violent videogames, though to be fair that could be the fault of the stage source material. At one point, Trevor's stage character said he didn't think much of killing because he thought it was like a videogame. Games have often been the target of critics when linking violent behavior to the suspects' pastimes. The only way for a game to influence your perspective of reality is if you were still learning the concept of reality or were already mentally disturbed to begin with. Blaming a "children's toy" is the easy way out of accepting your own negligence.
Bang Bang You're Dead's strengths easily allow you to forget its faults. It's a violent wake-up call and one that needs to be seen by as many people as possible.
To find out if you can fully relate to Trevor, consider this paraphrased dialogue that sums up his whole character.
"Have you ever felt the kind of depression where you feel like you've got nothing to lose and you don't care if you live or die? Well, I have."