A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Elephant is Gus Van Sant's Palme d'Or-winning drama, which is loosely based on the infamous 1999 Columbine high school shootings. It's deliberately mysterious and opaque, following several characters throughout the day and observing that they are all dealing with personal troubles, with little or no adult help. It contains some shocking violence, namely two teen boys shooting and killing people at school (with blood shown). Language is strong, but mainly during the final stretch, with several uses of "f--k" and "s--t." Teen couples are shown kissing, and two boys are shown showering and kissing (though seen only above the waist). There's also a very brief glimpse of a naked bottom in a girls' locker room. A teen's father is shown to have a drinking problem, and there's a brief scene of cafeteria workers smoking pot. Though rated R, parents might consider the movie as a discussion-starter for mature high school teens.
What's the story?
Several teens navigate a normal day of high school, despite their troubled lives. John (John Robinson) catches a ride with his drunken father, while lone Elias (Elias McConnell) takes photos of teen lovers. Nerdy Michelle (Kristen Hicks) is so insecure, she can't wear shorts to gym class, and Alex (Alex Frost) deals with bullies throwing spitballs at him in class. At home, Alex and his pal Eric (Eric Deulen) prepare for a sinister plan: to bring duffel bags full of guns to school and start shooting as many people as they can.
Is it any good?
Director Gus Van Sant takes a powerful approach to this material, without being heavy-handed. First, he interchanges timelines; events do not happen strictly in chronological order, as we can see from a moment of three teens meeting briefly in a hallway. We see it three times, from three different points of view. This creates a displacing, dreamy effect, as do lengthy shots, following characters as they walk down hallways or across school grounds.
Van Sant's aim is not suspense. Rather, the shootings are just as anti-climactic as the walking scenes, and all the more sickening for it. Another character, Benny, turns up late in the film (with his own introductory title card), though his story is yet another anti-climax. Moreover, the movie is almost entirely absent of adults, and the ones that are present seem hopelessly out of touch with the teens around them. Is there really an "elephant" in the room, and what can we do about it?
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the movie's violence. How is it portrayed differently than some other movie violence? What is the effect? What would the movie be like without the blood and other graphic scenes?
How many adults dare in the movie? How many are helpful, or compassionate, toward teens? What is the movie's message about the role of adults in teen life?
What are some of the issues the teens in the movie are dealing with? How realistic are these issues? Do you think the movie paints a darker-than-average picture of high school life?
- In theaters: October 23, 2003
- On DVD or streaming: May 4, 2004
- Cast: Alex Frost, Elias McConnell, John Robinson
- Director: Gus Van Sant
- Studios: Fine Line Features, HBO
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: High School, Misfits and Underdogs
- Run time: 81 minutes
- MPAA rating: R
- MPAA explanation: disturbing violent content, language, brief sexuality and drug use - all involving teens
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Common Sense Media's unbiased ratings are created by expert reviewers and aren't influenced by the product's creators or by any of our funders, affiliates, or partners.