You may not have liked going to school as a kid, but you probably didn’t hate it as much as Edwin. In his opening narration, the eighth-grader, played by an impressive Arman Darbo, refers to his school as the reason he can’t sleep at night, a clique-filled nightmare and a “big shit-pile floating downstream.” At the bottom of that stream, caught in the wake and crashing against the rocks, he and his best friend are trying — and failing — to make it through each day undisturbed.
A coming-of-age drama about kids who may never actually come of age, “And Then I Go” reads as a less abrasive “We Need to Talk About Kevin.” Vincent Grashaw’s adaptation of Jim Shepard’s 2004 novel “Project X” isn’t about red flags and warning signs so much as the toxic combination of angst, detachment and alienation that makes terrible decisions seem like the only recourse to kids who don’t know — or don’t believe — that the problems they’re facing will one day seem insignificant.
“Kids like you used to get their butts kicked when I was a kid,” Edwin’s kind-but-exhausted principal (Tony Hale, living up to the tradition of comic TV actors going serious for the indies) tells him after one especially sarcastic visit to the office. “They still do,” responds the troubled youth, who’s as quick-witted as he is confused. Cut to: Edwin and his best friend Flake getting their asses kicked by a couple of soccer players.
It takes all of 15 minutes to glean that this film’s narrative trajectory probably isn’t leaning toward reconciliation and catharsis. Edwin doesn’t seem likely to emerge from his adolescent ordeals changed for the better, and his parents (Melanie Lynskey and Justin Long) aren’t going to have an aha moment where they realize how to connect with their son. No, this movie’s arc is signaled by a question Flake asks Edwin: “Wanna see my dad’s guns?”
Rather than try to remake Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant,” as Tim Sutton did in “Dark Night,” Grashaw has crafted an intimate, sympathetic character study. The focus is on Edwin rather than what he may or may not eventually do, which is largely at the behest of his angry bestie. They’re making a list and checking it twice, but it’s clear all along that Flake (real name Roddy) is more committed to the idea than our wayward protagonist. Will they or won’t they?
Grashaw keeps us guessing. “And Then I Go” isn’t elegiac or fatalistic, nor is it a dread-filled slog toward an inevitable conclusion. There are glimmers of hope along the way, and a group art project goes surprisingly well — Edwin’s parents suggest taking a trip to the lake they used to visit every summer — and suggestions that the boy will find a way to weather this storm. By the time the end arrives, we’re as surprised as Edwin and Flake want their classmates to be.
“And Then I Go” premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.