State’s Evidence, from writer Mark Brown (the Barbershop movies) and director Benjamin Louis, could have been a good movie. It really could have. It starts with an offbeat premise that somehow comes across more believably than it should. It has assembled an ensemble of mostly capable young actors. On occasion, the screenplay even has flashes of insight that will resonate deeply with many audience members who went to a public high school in the United States. But the movie has so much working against it that, even though it tries pretty hard, it ends up descending into a total craptastrophe.
Starring as Scott, Douglas Smith (Big Love) tries pretty hard to sink the movie right off the bat with performance that hits a couple of sour notes (“boredom” and “smugness”). His dull monotone and pseudointellectual rambling don’t get us off to the best start. Scott announces the first plot point: “I am going to kill myself today.” He’s talking to the audience via a camcorder. The audience he thinks he’s talking to is, perhaps, somebody in the District Attorney’s office. Because, you see, the eponymous “state’s evidence” will consist of videotapes of his last day on Earth. He wants whoever will try to psychoanalyze these tapes to understand fully that there is no explanation for his suicide. As Sandy (Alexa Vega from Spy Kids) says of him later, “He’s so deep.”
Scott introduces us to his average parents and sister, living in their average house in the average suburb of Glendale, California. The entire film is shot with a combination of traditional cinematography and shaky stick-the-camera-in-my-face pseudo-handheld stuff. It’s not that the combination is jarring; it’s just irritating. Both cinematically and narratively, the faux-documentary comes across as a very lazy choice. The handheld shots are instant “style”—who needs firm directorial choices when we have grit and the raw power of a shaky camera capturing suburban malaise? More detrimentally, it gives the characters an opportunity to state, in blunt terms, everything they think and feel, rather than finding visual ways to show us this information.
When Scott announces to his disparate but apparently close-knit group of friends that he plans to commit suicide, they decide they want to make it a group effort: they’ll all commit suicide, each for different reasons. This is where the film goes from mildly annoying to fascinating, and suddenly I found myself wanting to learn as much about these characters as I could before they went through with killing themselves. The film squanders this sudden burst of goodwill by losing its focus in record time.
If State’s Evidence had stuck with its initial premise, it could have functioned as a morbid update of The Breakfast Club: a varied group exploring what has led them to the decision to die. Maybe, in the end, they’d talk themselves out of it, realizing like George Bailey that you’re never a failure as long as you have friends. Even if they didn’t, a meaningful exploration of everything that drives teens to suicide could have made for an interesting film.
Instead, the focus hangs far too long on Patrick (Kris Lemche, perhaps most recognizable as “Cute Boy God” on Joan of Arcadia). After a few interesting insights about the power a person can feel when he knows he won’t have to face any consequences, Patrick rapidly goes off the deep end, using the camera for all manner of unsavory acts. When a bully punches him in the face, Patrick decides to make a list of everyone he wants to kill. Fair enough. From there, State’s Evidence holds a pretty steady course toward the inevitable Columbine-like massacre, making a few pit-stops along the way so Patrick can gratuitously rape and murder a nine-year-old girl and the others can find out, be horrified, and do nothing about it.
Even with Patrick as the main focus, we don’t get a lot of insight into his character. He’s clearly disturbed, but aside from that he’s undeveloped. To be fair, the movie also short-changes most of the other characters. I still have no idea why Brian (Cody McMains) and Rick (Jamie Tyler Bell) were in this movie. I don’t even think Brian had any lines, and the only thing I remember about Rick is him running around during the third-act massacre, following Patrick around while videotaping him as he kills everyone. For no discernible reason. We never find out why most of these characters (including Patrick) agree to the suicide solution. Is it really just supposed to be about their boredom? Or getting picked on? The film doesn’t give us many clues, which makes the entire story difficult to accept.
By far the best parts of this movie are the fleeting insights into its female characters, Sandy and Trudi (Majandra Delfino). Not only do these two characters feel like authentic high school students, they’re the kind of offbeat pairing that might really be friends, somehow. Sandy’s a bookworm with a lot of romantic notions but not a lot of life experience; Trudi’s clearly smart herself, but she has developed the smart-ass cynicism that comes from an upbringing where the world always feels like it’s crumbling around her. They spend most of their time together talking about love and sex and arguing about each others’ reasons for suicide. Delfino in particular gives a heartbreaking performance, playing a character you can really believe—a girl who thinks suicide is her only way out, when if she just had an influence in her life saying, “It’ll all be over in a few years,” she could push through it.
On the other hand, Sandy’s madly in love with Scott and thinks the two of them sleeping together and then killing themselves would be a romantic way to go. Trudi is appropriately outraged and baffled by Sandy’s stupidity. Sandy argues her reasons for loving him are that he’s really smart, but unlike most smart boys he isn’t conceited. This is hilariously misguided in light of Smith’s performance as Scott: he speaks only in over-rehearsed, multisyllabic monologues in a transparent effort to show he is smarter than everyone else. Whether this is a deliberate (but bad) choice on Smith’s part or just poor acting, I can’t say.
Bottom line: a great movie can come from exploring the idea of a group suicide pact, especially if it contained characters like Sandy and Trudi. Unfortunately, State’s Evidence suffers from cinematic ADD, never sticking with its ideas or characters long enough to create a decent film.