By Jeffrey Anderson,
Common Sense Media Reviewer
Common Sense Media Reviewers
Powerful, provocative depiction of high school shootings.
A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this movie.
The "elephant" of the title refers to the idiom "the elephant in the room" that everyone ignores. The movie gives the sense that problems exist with teens and high schools, and that grown-ups are simply not present. Adults very rarely appear in this movie, and when they do, they are usually either part of the problem, or totally unaware of what's going on around them. However, aside from pointing this out, the movie doesn't offer any proactive suggestions.
Positive Role Models
Teens in this movie are basically miserable and are trying their very best to muddle through with little or no help, and this is before the unspeakable horrors that are about to make their lives much worse. These characters are generally unable to ask for help or to speak to others about their problems.
Violence & Scariness
Two teens arrive at a high school with duffel bags full of guns. They begin shooting teens and teachers arbitrarily. There are dead bodies and lots of blood. As these teens prepare for their big day, they play violent shooting video games, browse the Internet for guns, and watch a documentary about Hitler. There's a scene of teens bullying another teen in a classroom (throwing wet, wadded-up paper at him).
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Sex, Romance & Nudity
Two teen boy shower together and kiss (they are shown through the shower door, waist-up). A teen girl's naked bottom is quickly glimpsed in a locker room shower scene. Other boy-girl teen couples are shown briefly kissing. Two romantic teens, having their photo taken, make reference to "naked pictures."
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Most of the language comes during the horrifying final stretch, with upwards of a dozen uses of "f--k" and "s--t." Other words include "bitch," "hell," "retarded" and "oh my God." Some name calling: "loser."
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Products & Purchases
Capri Sun is mentioned and seen.
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking
A character's father is presumed to be an alcoholic, and drives his son to school drunk. The car swerves all over the road, bumps into obstacles, and gets scratched, but no one is harmed. In a very brief scene, two (adult) cafeteria cooks sneak off to smoke pot in a storage room.
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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.
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Where to Watch
Based on 1 parent review
A movie that teaches the possibilities and the aftermaths of a school shooting.
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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
- Run time: 81 minutes
- MPAA rating: R
- MPAA explanation: disturbing violent content, language, brief sexuality and drug use - all involving teens
- Last updated: October 8, 2022
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