And Then I Go

And Then I Go

This is one of the most powerful, disturbing, thought-provoking films I have seen lately. It’s about troubled adolescent boys and the lead up to a school shooting.

A couple of quick things before I get into the substance of the film.

One is that I was puzzled as to what time period this film is set in. It was made in 2017 and is based on a novel from 2004. There’s very little—maybe there’s some that I happened not to catch—as far as references to events in the news or pop culture. The Columbine shooting is mentioned, so we know it’s 1999 or later. I’m sure the makes of the cars and such that are shown would be a big clue, but I have never had any aptitude or interest in keeping up with car models and years and such so I’m unable to make use of that evidence.

But as far as the lifestyle depicted, the way the characters spend their days, it just doesn’t feel contemporary to me. I’m thinking mainly in terms of technology. It’s not that different from when I was a kid long, long ago, whereas the lives of kids today are in fact vastly different from how I grew up. The characters in this movie aren’t constantly on computers at home and in school. Most startlingly if it’s supposed to be set any time near the present, kids are not on their phones all day every day. They do things like play sports, draw in sketchbooks, hang out with each other and talk, etc.—all things that have seemingly largely died out in real life as kids have become addicted to their phones since the crib. Indeed, the only phones shown in the movie are old corded landline phones of the kind that only people my age (and not many of them) have anymore.

So 2017 seems way off, and frankly even 2004 seems dubious (I think we were at least somewhat more into the computer and phone era by then than is depicted here), but it can’t be before 1999. So I was going to guess that it takes place somewhere in the 1999-2004 range.

But then I did remember one other clue. The main character’s mother asks him about social media and mentions Facebook and Instagram specifically. I looked it up, and Instagram was launched in 2010.

So evidently this is supposed to be contemporary or at least close to it after all. But if so, it just feels really anachronistic to me. I mean, if it were just one or two main characters not spending their whole lives on their phones you could explain it away as being their individual quirks, but no one in the film is dominated by their phone (and, like I say, the only phones are ancient landlines and not cell phones anyway). Showing kids not glued to their phones nowadays is like showing them walking around without clothes on: it’s just not reality.

The other thing is it was killing me trying to figure out who the dad of the main character is. I was sure I knew him from prominent roles in movies I had seen, or maybe as a regular on some TV show I used to watch. He looks sort of like that actor Boyd Gaines that I knew from One Day at a Time and I’m Not Rappaport, but I knew it wasn’t him because that’s totally the wrong generation. (Gaines would have been in his 60s or older by the time this movie was made, not 30s or whatever this guy is.)

It bothered me enough that I went to IMDB to figure it out. I didn’t recognize the actor’s name at all, and looking through the list of movies and TV shows he’s been in turned up precisely nothing. Maybe two or three I had seen, but I didn’t remember him in them. He sure seemed familiar—and not just vaguely—but what in the world did I know him from?

Then I noticed a little note on IMDB about something else he had done, and that was the aha moment. It’s Mac! Mac from the Apple commercials with Mac and P.C.!

I shouldn’t admit it, but I actually sort of liked those commercials. I respected that it was a very tricky thing they were doing in that they had to make Mac clearly superior to P.C. without making P.C. too evil or pathetic for a feel-good comic sort of commercial or Mac too arrogant or obnoxious. Both characters had to be likable to at least a degree, and to get along and be nice to each other to at least a degree, in order for the commercials to have a fun style to them, yet they had to be clearly distinguishable with one being essentially a winner and one essentially a loser. I thought they pulled that off fairly well, like maybe 80%-90% successful, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if plenty of viewers instead thought Mac came off like an arrogant prick.

Anyway, enough of that tangent, but that’s one of the odd things I thought about in connection with this movie so I thought I’d throw it in.

The film tells the story of Edwin and Roddy (Flake), two unpopular and bullied junior high schoolers, with more of the focus on Edwin.

They live in a world of social isolation, with only each other to rely on. They are unable or unwilling to connect with anyone else. A certain amount of that is the circumstances; as unpopular kids, their opportunities are limited.

But when you get right down to it, there are still opportunities, even more so for Edwin. Insofar as they’re stuck in some bubble where no one (but each other) understands them, no one will listen to them, no one wants them around, no one respects them, no one is available to them for genuine connection, etc., that’s to a significant degree a matter of choice. They derive some emotional benefit from seeing themselves as martyrs, as defiant victims of the cruelty and unfairness of their peers and of the world. Or if you don’t want to say “choice,” then you can say it’s a matter of their not having the maturity, the life skills, yet to know how to take advantage of the opportunities that are there that would give them less miserable lives.

Early on, Flake shows Edwin his father’s stash of guns. They’re supposedly hidden and locked up, but Flake has figured out how to get at them. Which is sadly not at all unrealistic, in a gun-crazed culture, in a house with a teenager. That gives them the idea to strike out at their tormentors, at their school, at their world.

Edwin asks Flake if it’ll be like Columbine, and Flake disparagingly notes that the Columbine killers were “fuck ups” and that they’ll be able to pull off an even greater, more impressive massacre.

I read Dave Cullen’s definitive Columbine some years ago, so I have a decent understanding of that event. And there’s considerable truth to what Flake says. The Columbine killers had something far more elaborate planned than what they actually did, but they messed up in various ways. They were a couple of dopey kids after all, and it’s not like they had a lot of practice with massacres. Had they had the brains and discipline and such to fully follow through with what they had in mind, the body count would have been vastly higher. Most of what they tried to do flopped.

But the kids in this movie are even several years younger, and as things develop it’s clear that, despite Flake’s arrogant confidence, they’re not going to be able to pull off something that surpasses or even equals Columbine. Their plotting and such is frankly half-assed.

In the descriptions I’ve seen of the movie, Flake is depicted as the one who comes up with the idea of a school shooting and who pushes a reluctant Edwin into going along with it, with the drama being whether Edwin will ultimately rebel against the dominance of the stronger-willed Flake or will allow himself to be dragged along into an unspeakable crime.

There’s something to that, but I’d describe it as less black and white, as more a matter of degree. They come up with the idea together with it being somewhat more Flake’s idea, they both participate in the planning with Flake taking a bit of a greater role in that, and they both express ambivalence about actually going through with it with Edwin manifesting more such ambivalence. So they are certainly not equally into the scheme, but by the same token it’s not a matter of Flake being gung ho about it from start to finish and dragging along a reluctant Edwin. They both are into it all along, just to different degrees.

Indeed, there is a scene where Edwin learns of something that could potentially screw up their plans, and instead of using that as a convenient way of getting out of following through he immediately alerts Flake to the threat so that they can figure out how best to overcome it.

But, yeah, the focus is more on Edwin and his struggles. The more real the impending shooting feels to him, the more tortured he is. Are things really so bad that it warrants killing multiple people and in the process destroying his own life? At times it feels that way to him but at times not.

Because, like I say, he has at least some chance, some opportunities, at meaningful human connection with people in addition to what he and Flake have with each other, some chance at a better life. (Likely Flake does too, though to a lesser extent, but we aren’t shown his life in as much detail.) The closer he comes to the moment when he’ll have to commit to pulling the trigger, the more he becomes aware of these opportunities, these reasons to live, these reasons to pull back.

His parents aren’t perfect, but they’re no worse than average as parents and are genuinely trying to help him. His mother especially is kind to him and concerned about him. There are teachers and school administrators who have offered him some support, some encouragement. Granted these are all adults, and as a 14 year old who knows everything he is obligated to shut them out and refuse to engage with them as clueless outsiders who could never understand him and what he’s going through, but there’s a part of him that recognizes that maybe the generation gap isn’t inevitably unbridgeable if he doesn’t insist on treating it as such.

His little brother is annoying, as little brothers tend to be, but at the same time he is aware of a bond there, a mutual fondness that he is on the verge of losing if he goes through with the plan.

He has recently gotten some very positive feedback about his art; maybe that could develop into something good in his life.

He has even been noticed in a favorable way—in connection with his art—by a couple of girls, something that is evidently something of a novelty for someone like him or Flake, and certainly something sure to get the attention of a 14 year old boy.

As the planned massacre approaches, it’s like Edwin realizes that he is saying goodbye to all these people, to this life, and he’s less and less certain that that is in fact what he wants to do. Yet it sort of has its own momentum now, and, externally at least, Flake doesn’t seem to be experiencing the same doubts, at least not to the same degree, and Edwin doesn’t want to back down and be revealed as some kind of pussy to the only friend he has had since he can remember.

By the way, initially Edwin and Flake are presented, including in Edwin’s voiceover narration, as having no friends other than each other, and as being at the bottom of the junior high school social hierarchy. But over time we come to see that that is not the whole story, that maybe it’s how they choose to perceive themselves and describe themselves, but that reality is a bit more complicated.

For instance, starting halfway or so into the movie they are depicted in multiple scenes as hanging out with this other little dude Herman who looks up to them. He himself is being bullied and wants their assistance—as tougher, higher-ranked characters—in dealing with it. So he seems to be a friend of theirs of sorts, and also seems to be even lower on the totem pole.

For that matter, when they run into Herman in a convenience store and let him know they’ll allow him the privilege of hanging out with them if he gives them enough money to get snacks, not only does he abide by this condition but he also tells the kid he was with to scram. So apparently that other kid is even lower in social status.

So, yeah, Edwin and Flake get picked on more than the average kids, and they end up in fights more often than average, and they lose those fights more often than average, but their isolation and their low ranking in the junior high school social hierarchy are partly reality and partly myth, just as the notion that the adults in their life are clueless and don’t care about them and could never understand them is partly reality and partly myth. Edwin has just started to get that, but is it too late?

There’s no question this movie reached me and made me think and feel more than most. In part that’s because it’s very well-done—the acting and dialogue and such I think are very good—and in part I’m sure it’s due to the subject matter.

The subject matter—school shootings and the travails of navigating one’s way through this particularly difficult stage of life—are not just attention-grabbing in a sensationalist sense. I mean, if you want to see the movie as a thriller, as a suspenseful story about whether this potential violence will explode or not and in what form, it works on that level. It’ll keep you on the edge of your seat. But to me the human story is every bit as gripping. Even if we were just talking about the more mundane ways that this kind of bullying, social pressure, inability to communicate across generations, etc. damages lives, it would feel very relevant and meaningful to me.

The film got me thinking about a lot of things, most of which I’m sure I won’t be able to articulate here.

Obviously it raises issues of how to bring up children and interact with children, and especially how to communicate with them.

These kids go through life in an uncommunicative shell of sorts, a shell that is especially difficult for adults to penetrate. You see it so clearly with Edwin, the pain in his eyes, the inability or unwillingness to talk about that pain. It’s like his adolescent pride about not showing vulnerability, about not acknowledging that adults could ever really “get” him and have anything to offer him, about not breaking his silence, is so overwhelmingly important to him that he’ll fiercely cling to it regardless of the evidence, regardless of what remaining in the shell is doing to him, regardless of whether it leads even to a Columbine-like denouement.

Like I say, the adults in his life aren’t perfect, but they’re really not that bad as adults go. And they’re genuinely trying; you have to give them credit for at least that.

OK, so maybe sometimes they show an interest in some aspect of your life that you don’t give a shit about (like your schoolwork) or they offer some encouragement about some aspect of your life that you don’t give a shit about (like your schoolwork), or they suggest possible improvements to your social life that you recognize are not realistic in the context of your life and your environment. Maybe some of the ways they seek to kid around with you, discipline you, engage you in conversation, etc. manifest a certain tone deafness about kids and about you.

So what? Is all that really so unforgivable? They obviously care about you, are trying to support you, are trying to reach you, are trying to help you, however clumsily. Is it really too much to ask that you meet them halfway, or ten or twenty percent of the way? Do you really have to be an asshole about it and treat imperfect allies as enemies?

There’s no question this is a difficult time of life, and people that age have developed very, very limited tools to deal with it. I’ve actually talked to people who experienced their junior high school and/or high school years as overall positive, but they’re the exception. I think it’s more common to experience this period as anywhere from unpleasant to traumatizing.

I absolutely hated those years of my life, and a movie like this hits hard in part precisely because it takes me back to that time of my life. To an extent I can see myself in these characters and what they experience.

I’d say my home life was somewhat worse. I had one very poor parent who was a net negative in my life to a substantial degree, and one mediocre parent who was more neutral to I suppose slightly negative. I’d rate Edwin’s parents well above mine. We don’t see very much of Flake’s parents and his interaction with them, but I’d probably still rate his home life as marginally better than mine, based on the little we do see. His parents seem more indifferent than anything particularly bad.

On the other hand you can make the case that I had a somewhat less awful school life. At least it had much less conflict, much less physical fighting. I don’t think I was at or near the bottom of the social hierarchy so much as outside of it. I held myself aloof from it because it all seemed pretty stupid to me. I didn’t have much use for those playing that game nor they for me. Socially I was more ignored or invisible than abused.

I had actually been reasonably successful socially in elementary school, when brains were admired more and there was less emphasis on total conformity. But once I hit seventh grade that all ended abruptly and I was the shy, awkward kid who absolutely didn’t fit in and didn’t particularly try to. In elementary school I had resented school as a silly place you were forced to go against your will and do mostly things you had no interest in doing—I had more of a principled objection to the violation of autonomy—but in junior high school and high school I had a deeper, more visceral hatred of school.

Was I unhappy? Yeah, miserably so. No question.

Did I communicate about it better than Edwin, come out of my shell better than Edwin? Probably not, probably about the same. I would argue that I didn’t have as supportive adults available who were trying to help me through that period, though perhaps someone looking from the outside would disagree.

I don’t think the elements of my life that I disliked so much back then generated the same kind of rage in me as it does in these kids. My take on it is that I didn’t have extreme emotions of pain and anger and such because I responded to my circumstances more by shutting down emotionally. That’s far from a healthy response of course, but it meant that I wasn’t all that likely to react in some kind of an extreme way like they’re contemplating.

Did I ever focus on revenge, or have violent, murderous thoughts back then?

I’d say mostly not, for multiple reasons. I think I was a lot more focused on escape than on retaliation. I certainly thought about killing my father when I was young, but even that was more a matter of wanting to get out from under his influence, to escape from the gloom of an environment so dominated by his negativity, rather than to punish him. I had no great desire for him to suffer; I just wanted him gone.

I just never came up with a plausible way of killing him that wouldn’t put me in worse circumstances than I already was in. I was a highly rational kid, and I could think through the consequences of my actions, and I didn’t see years in some punitive juvenile facility as an appealing alternative to my current life. If I had seen some way of poisoning him or something that couldn’t be traced back to me, there’s a decent chance I would have done it.

At least when I was very young, that is. Sometime in my teens I was already developing a certain moral sensibility that put me on a Gandhian path, where I came to value nonviolence and not returning evil for evil. By then I wouldn’t have done anything like that to him or anyone else, regardless of whether I could have gotten away with it.

But I don’t remember—even prior to developing a moral philosophy of nonviolence—ever having any kind of more generalized temptation toward violence, where instead of striking at one identifiable negative figure for identifiable reasons there was ever a realistic chance I would lash out in some more general “mad at the world” Columbine-like manner, harming and killing people indiscriminately. Even on the level of idle fantasy I don’t remember ever being inclined in that direction. If I put myself in Edwin and Flake’s shoes, the farthest I could see being tempted as a kid would have been to strike out at a specific individual who bullied or hurt me, like if they decided to ambush some kid who beat them up and turn the tables on him.

I’ve so internalized the Gandhian philosophy by now that it’s hard to imagine my being a violent person at all—I mean, I suppose in a very superficial way like in the immediacy of being provoked, but not in a Columbine-like premeditated way—but I don’t think even back then, as miserable as I was and as traumatized as I sometimes felt, I had that potential for extreme or indiscriminate violence.

Like I say, I was more focused on escape. I wanted out of there at the earliest possible opportunity. But I was realistic about it; I knew there was no way at age 10 or 12 or something like that that I could simply walk away from the life I had. There are legal, occupational, financial, etc. barriers to that. I had to force myself to bide my time and wait until escape was difficult rather than impossible, until my age and resources meant I had at least some chance of getting a place to live and a job if I left.

And it happened. When I saw an opening, it was surprisingly sudden. From the day I started putting a specific plan together—rather than just having general thoughts of “I’m going to get out of here one day”—to the day I walked out the door and started a new life was just a week or two. I was 17.

And in that respect I did see myself in these kids. They plotted a massacre like I plotted escape. There was the same exhilaration, the same anxiety, the same uncertainty about whether I would really be able to pull this off, albeit not the same moral hesitation of Edwin, since I didn’t perceive what I had in mind as a monstrous crime.

I have to say I did a better job of it too. I was older; I’m sure that’s a part of it. I’d say I was smarter and had less ambivalence too. Certainly I can look back now and see that I made certain mistakes or that things might have gone more smoothly if I had done this instead of that, but it wasn’t a half-assed operation like what we see out of these two. When you get right down to it, for all its imperfections it was stunningly successful. With the very, very limited experience and resources I had to call upon, I doubt even one percent of people could have succeeded as well as I did, and I take pride in that.

But, yeah, I see myself in these kids, in Edwin. Not in the particulars of precisely the issues they are dealing with or the way they choose to respond, but in much more broad terms. I sympathize. I feel the pain they are in.

So of course I also thought a lot about what one could do, as an adult, to get through to kids like this. I mean, they’re responding poorly to an admittedly difficult situation—there’s a lot to criticize there—but they’re kids and kids do stupid things. What can be done to lessen the likelihood of their doing murderously stupid things, or just what can be done to make adolescence a less hellish time in general?

When I see Edwin responding with silence to all the well-meaning attempts by his mother and others to reach him it can feel hopeless. Like once a kid goes into that uncommunicative martyr phase you’ve lost him indefinitely.

It’s easy to say, oh I’d do this, or say that, or punish him this way, or approach him that way, but when you’re perceived by a troubled kid as a clueless and neutral other at best and an enemy at worst, what can you do that won’t simply drive him deeper into his shell and make the situation worse?

I don’t know. I have no magic answers. Some of it’s just a matter of being patient and waiting for a kid to get through this kind of period to where they mature into a more communicative, emotionally evolved being, though obviously that isn’t going to cut it if in the interim they perpetrate a school massacre.

One thought I had as I watched is that I’ve never fully bought into the extremely common notion I’ve heard espoused confidently from so many people in so many different circumstances that it’s a parenting blunder to seek to be your child’s friend, that the proper parental role is importantly different and in some respects incompatible with the role of friend. I mean, it’s something of a cliché, but I’ve never really been convinced by it.

I guess, though, it depends on how it is interpreted. If it just means that you shouldn’t placate your kids however is necessary to get them to like you, to buy their affection, then I agree with that. But then I don’t approach my friends like that either, so I don’t think of that as somehow inherent to friendship.

It’s usually put forward as a defense of some kind of disciplinarianism or “tough love,” and I’m simply not a fan of that.

I think about it in the context of this film, because I think it’s a way of advocating maintaining a certain distance, of maintaining an understanding of “I’m an adult and you’re a child, so we’re fundamentally different, and we cannot connect as any kind of equals. I make and enforce the rules and you follow the rules; those are fundamentally different roles in a relationship.” And while there may well be positive consequences of that, the downside of that distance is precisely what we see with someone like Edwin. He can open up to even a flawed friend like Flake (and even that only to a limited extent) because he is indeed a friend. But grown-ups aren’t friends; they’re of a different category. He can’t show his pain to them, can’t confide in them, can’t confess to them, can’t share his possibly unwise schemes with them.

What if one or more of the adults in his life had been willing to defy conventional wisdom and establish a friendship with him? Not now, when he’s already highly troubled, as a response to his objectionable behavior, but all along, from the beginning? Isn’t there something to be said for being a better, healthier, more mature friend to him than Flake, rather than insisting on not being a friend at all because as an adult that’s not appropriate?

Again, I don’t know. I just have the sense that maintaining that distance, that fundamental inequality between adult and child, forecloses a certain kind of connection that can be a wonderful and positive thing, and can facilitate a certain quality of communication that is rare in a more conventional adult/child relationship.

I would say that humility and a willingness to listen are certainly important. I think if you approach the problem of trying to get through to an uncommunicative child by pragmatically probing at him, saying this or that to get him to do what you want him to do, that can often be futile and be met by defensiveness. Whereas it can come across as refreshingly different to a child when an adult sends the message, “I don’t have all the answers and I admit it. I can’t tell you what to do. I don’t claim to fully understand you or all that you are facing at this stage of your life. But I care. And I genuinely want to understand better, and I’m willing to listen to you with respect to facilitate that understanding.”

And above all else, don’t give up. Keep trying. Even if what you’re doing isn’t best—and anything I suggest certainly is very speculative as far as being “best” and I suspect that’s true of other people’s more conventional approaches as well, whether they’d admit it or not—be persistent in trying to get through, trying to help. You can see in Edwin that the brick wall is crumbling just a bit because there’s a teacher who persists in encouraging his art, a mother who keeps coming up with ideas she hopes will make him happy, etc., and even if substantively he’s not receptive to those specific things he still recognizes at some level the positive motive behind them, and that is having some modest effect. Maybe they’re manifesting caring and love poorly or clumsily, at least in his perception, but the fact that they’re manifesting caring and love at all matters and might eventually get through to him.

But aside from what can be done on an individual level, there’s the level of society and institutions. I’m very much a maverick when it comes to schooling and education. I think conventional schooling is inhumane and frankly very damaging to young people. This whole notion of gathering dozens or hundreds or thousands of kids together every day in some building for set times to sit in rows of desks in rooms and have somebody talk at them and impose petty discipline on them is not at all conducive to their learning, their maturation, their happiness, their development of good values, or anything else.

It’s a terrible social experiment that’s been going on since the 1800s, and it’s a complete failure. This isn’t what childhood should be. We don’t see that because we’re so damn used to it, so at most we look for little ways to alter it around the edges. The whole approach should be scrapped.

This isn’t the place to go into great detail about my dissatisfaction with conventional schooling or what I’d like to see replace it, but of course the way we raise and school children is going to traumatize Edwin and Flake and countless others like them. How could it not? It’s insulting, cruel, and unnatural.

I know because I’ve experienced it. I used to be a child.

It’s a miracle that so few kids react by grabbing their parents’ guns and shooting up their school. But for every kid who is damaged in that way to that extreme, there are too many kids to count who are damaged in other more subtle ways, ways that they themselves aren’t always conscious of (which is why they then impose the same kind of childhood on their kids).

Again, I don’t want to try to articulate the specifics here, but I would just say to think outside the box, to imagine bringing up children in an environment that lacks what we’re used to thinking of as normal schools, as indeed the only kind of institutions that would count as “schools” at all, and to try to come up with radically different approaches.

I’ve really only conveyed here a small fraction of what And Then I Go made me feel and the various thoughts it engendered in me. Maybe the issues it raises are somehow more personal to me than they would be to other viewers, I don’t know. But unhappiness and trauma in childhood is something hugely relevant and important to me, and I think this movie conveys that pain very effectively. Strong recommendation for And Then I Go.

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