The best thing about The Life Before Her Eyes, a somber meditation on fate and friendship, is the way it captures the close relationship between two teenage girls. Diana (Evan Rachel Wood) is the wild child at Hill View High, smoking cigarettes, cutting class, sleeping with a guy who has his own apartment and car. Maureen (Eva Amurri) is the churchgoing good girl, diligent with homework, shy with boys.
As they stroll the leafy sidewalks of their small Connecticut town, sharing meals in each other's kitchens and the secrets in each other's hearts, the ties that bind these seemingly dissimilar spirits become strong, terribly strong. And then in one awful moment, everything breaks apart.
Based on a 2002 novel by Laura Kasischke, and turning on the events of a Columbine-like school shooting, The Life Before Her Eyes toggles back and forth in time between Diana as a teenager and Diana as a mother and wife, in her 30s, still reeling from the trauma and loss of that one deadly day. Uma Thurman takes on the role of the older Diana - overprotective of her young daughter, distant from her philosophy-professor husband, looking as though she might snap like a branch, fragile and forever on the brink of tears.
The Life Before Her Eyes has been directed by Vadim Perelman, who applies the same sense of mournful clarity that permeated his House of Sand and Fog, but who is stymied here by a narrative structure that requires a series of deceptive tricks - or you could call them clues - to get to its final, head-spinning revelation.
The Life Before Her Eyes is soaked in grief and guilt, rife with images of water. Allusions to William Blake and the American philosopher William James are dropped like bread crumbs in Hansel and Gretel's woods. The jangling harmonies of a British Invasion classic, the Zombies' "She's Not There," add another note.
There are two very fine performances here - Wood's and Amurri's - but they're not strong enough to rise above the metaphor-laden script. The Life Before Her Eyes is like a ghost story that doesn't quite make sense in the bright light of the day.
The Life Before Her Eyes **1/2 (Out of four stars)
Directed by Vadim Perelman. With Evan Rachel Wood, Uma Thurman and Eva Amurri. Distributed by Magnolia Pictures.
Running time: 1 hour, 30 mins.
Parent's guide: R (violence, profanity, adult themes)
Playing at: Ritz Five, AMC Neshaminy and Showcase at the Ritz Center/NJ
Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.