An ordinary high school day. Except that it’s not.

The 2003 movie Elephant was written and directed by Gus Van Sant (of Good Will Hunting greatness). It begins by following various teenagers through a day of high school, the camera sometimes moving quickly and sometimes lingering for a few minutes on a scene. As the film progresses it becomes clear that the characters experience school in very different ways and that the social structure of the student body is a complex one. As it progresses more (or even as one watches the trailer) it also becomes apparent that the movie is loosely based on the Columbine High School shootings.

Elephant stars amateur actors playing characters based on themselves and improvising portions of the dialog. It is apparently influenced by Iranian film in this amateur aspect. It features unusual cinematography, with the camera often sitting still as action take place around it, leading to an incomplete view of the scene and a sense that more is going on nearby. Because the movie switches its focus between several students, it is hard to fully sympathize with any of them, but this seems to be intentional. The movie does depict a school shooting, but does so with more uniform sorrow than much of the media might: there are no villains here; good and evil are not as obvious as one might like. Perhaps Elephant is the closest one can come to an objective movie, as neither Van Sant nor the camera ever seems to judge the characters.

The title presumably comes from the phrase “elephant in the room,” which would then presumably refer to the alienation and anxiety felt by some high school students. It’s worth noting that Elephant has been criticized for being pretentious and unemotional, but personally I don’t mind these traits in a movie. The 2003 Cannes Film Festival awarded its Palme d’Or and Best Director prizes to Elephant. The movie is 81 minutes long and was rated R by the MPAA for “disturbing violent content, language, brief sexuality and drug use—all involving teens.”