An ordinary day at an American high school. Odd autumnal calm descends as a beautiful boy (John McFarland) is late to classes after having to seize auto keys from his drunken father. Another beautiful boy (Elias McConnell) develops film negatives in the school photo lab. Additional beautiful boys (Alex Frost, Nathan Tyson, Bennie Dixon) get pelted with spitballs in science class, ignore the advances of bulimic hoochie-mommas, or stroll the school's barren halls to destinations unknown.
Yeah, there are lots of beautiful boys on view in Portland native Gus van Sant's riveting and elegiac Palme d'Or winner Elephant. And two of 'em stay home from school one day in anticipation of the FedExed weapons they'll eventually use to wipe out their teachers and classmates.
Van Sant's graceful camera floats through the kids' lives to offer varying perspectives of the same action, demonstrating the fiber that connects the high school's population (and the fact that each of the students is having a unique, separate experience). Much of the film consists of lengthy, gorgeous tracking shots so languid and serene that the final, horrifying moments are unspeakably intense.
The characters here are exposed to violent video games, fucked-up family lives, schoolplace taunting, emotional instability, and easy access to deadly weapons. And the ghost of Columbine lingers, an unmentionable elephant present in every single frame. But don't expect to find explanations here. There are none.
One of the teen killers plays Beethoven's "Für Elise" on an out-of-tune piano the morning of the slaughter. The song (like the film) is cold, yet tender. Unspeakably beautiful, but inescapably terrifying.