Why do kids go and shoot up their schools? It’s a question that can likely never be answered fairly because there is no answer. We can make up reasoning and blame it on music, movies, Cap’n Crunch but it’s something more complex. The answer is because. Since the Columbine tragedy, there have been several goes at exploring school violence directly, Gus Van Sant’s Elephant being the one with the highest profile. While Elephant was a success stylistically, Ben Coccio’s Zero Day is more haunting and hits home harder.
Andre (Andre Keuck) and Cal (Calvin Robertson) are your generic high school students. They listen to music, talk about nothing and everything at the same time, have pimples and have out-of-touch parents who want nothing but the best for their boys. Andre and Cal make up the Army of Two and they’re planning an assault on their school.
For the most part, Zero Day plays out as though they were Andre and Cal’s home movies as they plot out their sinister plan. Shot on digital video, they talk directly to the camera and acknowledge those who are watching. It lends the film a raw documentary feel, but the filming strategy ultimately runs deeper and darker. You become a direct witness to more details than one really should know. For example, one scene goes step by step on how to make a good pipe bomb. Don’t forget the screws to make good shrapnel.
In showing the story through the first person, Coccio shows his characters’ souls. You see what they’re thinking, what they do and some of their motivations. Although Andre and Cal don’t ever say outright why they’re planning to kill, the hints are there. It’s nothing specific. Andre and Cal both just want to live and leave a footprint for the world to remember them by. Since they hate school and the majority of the people there, it becomes an opportunity. Through throw-away comments and subtle body language Andre and Cal are established as underachievers who will likely waddle through life in mediocrity. However, it’s human nature to want to elevate one’s self to something more, a pedestal to stand out.
Although the majority of the film is shown through the eyes of Andre and Cal, there are a couple that stray from the strategy. These happen to be the scenes that I think are by far the weakest and because they both happen towards the end of the film, they drag down the overall impact. The first follows Cal on his prom night. Gathering with other friends while Andre slaves away at his entry-level job, the scene is shown from a camera that isn’t Cal’s. While the scene does go to show a more “normal” side of the soon-to-be madman, it doesn’t do much that an earlier, more intimate, scene between Cal and his girlfriend. The second scene that wrecks the full on documentary feel comes at the climax of the film where Zero Day arrives. This collection relies on security camera footage with mass chaos, ample screaming and lots of gunshots. It is really quite anticlimactic as we all know what is going to happen. Not to mention the fact that the screaming extras were all far from convincing. I think the entire film would have been stronger had it ended with Cal and Andre entering the school, weapons in tow. Because you know what is going to happen, I think it best to leave it to the imagination. The final shot before the two boys enter the school was a strong one with their camera mounted on the dashboard, history about to take place.
Like Elephant, Zero Day offers little in the way of solutions. It concedes there aren’t any easy answers. Human impulse often dictates our actions and as such, the most we can really do is confront the problem and take steps to ensure it doesn’t happen. But more school violence will come. It’s a sad inevitability. Save for a couple of missteps, Zero Day is a deeply raw and haunting fictional recount of an event that is becoming all too common.
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