The protagonists here are portrayed by two extraordinary actresses -- the delicate Erika Christensen, who was Michael Douglas's drug-addicted daughter in Traffic, and the more vigorous Busy Philipps, making her big-screen debut after starring in the acclaimed but short-lived Freaks and Geeks and, more recently, in Dawson's Creek. At first glance, the girls they play couldn't seem more different. Philipps's Alicia Browning is the picture of darkness -- a world-weary creature of the night caked in industrial-strength makeup, wearing two pounds of safety pins and nose rings and a permanent scowl that announces she's seen and done it all. She has an aggressive street mouth on her, complete with a smoldering Marlboro. By contrast, Christensen's Deanna Cartwright is pert and peppy, the bright-eyed, straight-A student who drives a BMW to school and worries about getting into a good college. Where Alicia smirks, Deanna smiles. They are dusk and dawn.
Both girls, we soon learn, are in deep emotional trouble. Struck on the side of the head by a wayward bullet, Deanna is now recovering in a hospital bed, trying without much luck to keep her spirits up while nurses poke and prod her and the staff psychiatrist (Holland Taylor) does her best to allay the nightmares and heal the damage. On the other hand, Alicia's protective armor prevents her from feeling anything (at least not openly), despite the fact that she witnessed the entire massacre and was standing next to the teen killer when the police shot him dead. The only reason the two girls have any contact at all in the aftermath of the tragedy is that the school principal has ordered the grades-poor Alicia to visit Deanna in the hospital if she wants to graduate.
This is the first of the film's several story-line conveniences, but it's easy to forgive. By putting the girls in close proximity -- imprisoning them together, really -- Ryan gives them every chance to bump and bruise and, after a long trial, to understand. The sullen, detached Alicia is no box of cookies. She mocks Deanna's every ray of sunshine, even her despair. Oddly, though, Alicia is just what Deanna needs to break out of her cocoon. Their relationship begins in dark distrust, but their shared trauma eventually produces a kind of epiphany. Meanwhile, Ryan provides a useful subplot -- the torment of a local police detective named Van Zandt (Victor Garber), who feels increasingly uncomfortable with his surly captain's hyper-rationalist demand to uncover an accessory to murder. The prime suspect? Alicia. Thus do we arrive at crisis and crossroads -- but not resolution. When Van Zandt goes to inspect Alicia's hall locker, for instance, he finds inside only a chewed yellow pencil. There are no easy answers here.
At more than two hours, Home Room runs a bit long, and the film's final twist is dramatically debatable. But thanks to Philipps's explosive need and Christensen's struggling vulnerability, we see the human costs inherent in tragedy once the TV trucks have left and only the haunting remains. Ryan's views of an empty high school darkened by death are subtly effective, and the few scenes in which he kicks up the film's ambient uneasiness with a brief nightmare or an anxiety attack are so lean, so well depicted, that we feel we've been wired straight into a disturbed teenager's brainwaves.
This new director's natural restraint, as well as his quest to understand individual emotion rather than trot out the social theory of the week, makes for a welcome alternative to, say, the flashier, more doctrinaire speculations about the roots of American violence expressed in Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine. Ryan and Moore both appeared with their films at the Denver International Film Festival last October, and while Moore got most of the attention, the creator of Home Room thoroughly captivated audiences with his quiet thoughtfulness. This daring, admirable film does no less.