For this critic, reviewing a movie like April Showers is very difficult. I often think that movies made this recently about a tragedy as deep and damaging as what happened at Columbine High School ten years ago this month veer dangerously close to exploitation. It turns out that a label like that would be too easy a way to write off this accomplished, harrowing, and deeply, deeply personal film. Writer/director Andrew Robinson was actually there on that day in that school. A Columbine grad, a decade later he has become a filmmaker with something to say about how people heal and attempt to cope after unimaginable tragedy. I was concerned that April Showers would be nothing more than an exploitative TV movie of the week. (I actually requested the screener mistakenly thinking that it was a documentary and felt my stomach drop when I realized that it was not.) It's not exploitation. And it's not a TV movie. It’s (mostly) not melodrama. April Showers is a moving, well-made piece of work with daring and genuine performances from a talented young cast. It's not a perfect film, but it's also not what you'd expect and a story that feels like it's told in a way that only someone with personal knowledge of what happened that day could possibly have made.
I vividly remember where I was when I heard about Columbine. Like a lot of people, it was a shattering event for me, something I responded very emotionally to for days after (and even have a tough time thinking about without getting a little choked up). As you might imagine, the recreation of the actual event in the first act of April Showers is a tough thing to take. Shot with a lot of handheld cameras, natural light, and low focus, it's an absolute nightmare on film. Robinson walks a fine line well, in that he genuinely recreates the horror of that day without turning it into something unwatchable. There's blood and terror, but no gore or melodrama. It's a significant difference. Robinson also wisely doesn't make April Showers about the shooters. He focuses on the people he knew - the survivors. We only barely see the shooters in the recreated security camera footage. These opening sequences are more about flashing lights, alarm sounds, and praying that the killers don't come into the room in which you're hiding.
Robinson makes the smart decision of not focusing entirely on the fateful day. His film is more about the aftermath, something he himself lived through and continues to live through to this day. As for characters, he spotlights on the fictional Sean Ryan (Kelly Blatz of Prom Night) along with a few other survivors and victims (including Daryl Sabara of Spy Kids, Janel Parrish, Ileana Douglas, and a nice dramatic turn from Tom Arnold). Sean has to deal with both the horrors of what happened that day and the loss of a close friend (Ellen Woglom). With excellent cinematography by Aaron Platt, the team that Robinson has assembled does an expert job being effective with a low budget. In particular, Blatz makes quite an impact, feeling completely genuine and yet understated in every scene. Blatz and Sabara do an amazing job of refusing to sink into the melodrama that a lot of other actors would have used as a crutch.
My problems with April Showers come with the sometimes overdone dialogue and the general structure of the screenplay. Robinson is a better director than a writer. He gets great performances from his actors and works well with his d.p., but, as a writer, he doesn't pace the screenplay quite right to make it truly great. There are a few too many string-accompanied moments that feel manipulative – for example, we spend just a few minutes too long in the school where it goes from harrowing to uncomfortable to watch - and I'm not sure Andrew has even fully dealt with what happened that day enough to completely capture the grieving process. How could he have? How can anyone cope with something that awful? April Showers almost has the feel of watching someone come to terms with something unimaginable through his art. That's not exploitation. It's closer to therapy. And it makes for a riveting movie.
April Showers is currently playing in some markets and may expand to others. It is also available on iTunes and DVD on May 5th. For more details, go here.
Rating: THREE BONES
Reviewed by Brian Tallerico (MovieRetriever.com Film Critic)
Release Date: April 24th, 2009
Starring: Kelly Blatz, Daryl Sabara, Janel Parrish, Ellen Woglom, Ileana Douglas, and Tom Arnold
Director: Andrew Robinson
Writer: Andrew Robinson