You get six troubled-teen movies for the price of one in "2h37," a queasy exploitation picture masquerading as a serious dramatic treatment of teen suicide from Australian writer-helmer Murali K. Thalluri. Artful narrative strategy, clever chronological games and narrow focus on a cluster of high school students over the course of 24 hours will remind some of Gus Van Sant's "Elephant," but the uneasy blend of insight and calculation teeters over into offensiveness long before the end is near. Well-made pic will draw some distrib interest, even if the subject matter cries out for cable.
At 2:37 p.m., a student at an Oz high school is found dead, wrist slashed, on the floor of a restroom. After this gruesome but restrained opener, pic rewinds to earlier that morning, unraveling the threads connecting six disturbed students, and climaxing with the almost triumphant revelation of the suicide victim's identity. In other words, this is not only a suicide but a whodunit, and the film's conflicting priorities -- its pretense to a serious examination of teen issues, complicated by the deliberate withholding of information required to maintain suspense -- make for a distasteful combo.
Over the course of one highly eventful day: fragile beauty Melody (Teresa Palmer) takes a home pregnancy test; her brother Marcus (Frank Sweet) displays an aggressive temper with his teachers; and good-looking jock Luke (Sam Harris) fools around with girlfriend Sarah (Marni Spilane) while guarding a painful secret.
Meanwhile, it's another bad day as usual for Sean (Joel Mackenzie), a pot-smoking outcast who turns angrily defensive of his homosexuality at the drop of a gay slur, and for Steven (the very likeable Charles Baird), a pitiably awkward individual whose medical problems have made him the butt of everyone's jokes. Characters remain in continual movement throughout the day, with most of the drama playing out in and around toilet stalls.
Time proves extremely malleable, as Thalluri displays a graceful talent for replaying key confrontations from different angles and perspectives.
If cinematographer Nick Matthews' glossy tracking shots constantly evoke "Elephant," the other dominant influence seems to be the short-lived ABC drama series "Once & Again," which was similarly strewn with one-on-one interviews with the characters. These private Q&As, shot in lustrous black-and-white, prove somewhat more revealing than most of the script's dialogue, which mostly substitutes profanities and sexual innuendo for insight.
Climactic set piece juxtaposes a hideously protracted re-enactment of the suicide with a leering here's-what-you-didn't-see sequence straight out of "The Usual Suspects." By that point, pic's conclusive message about teens on the fringes of high school society are likely to fall on unreceptive ears.
Camera (color), Nick Matthews; editors, Thalluri, Matthews, Dale Roberts; music, Mark Tschanz; art director, Jeni Lee; sound designer (Dolby Digital), Leslie Shatz; assistant director, Farhad Noori. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard), May 25, 2006. Running time: 98 MIN.