Friendship, Childhood, and Guns in the Post-Columbine Era
Director Vincent Grashaw Discuss And Then I Go
How far would you go for your best friend? If they were the only person in the world to which you felt connected, would you let anything jeopardize that bond? Would you sacrifice your own life to make them happy? Director Vincent Grashaw uses the United States cultural epidemic of school shootings to examine the roots and depths of friendship in his latest project, And Then I Go (2017). But he was quick to point out that this film is not about topical tragedies; rather, mass shootings by disaffected young boys are treated as manifestations of a broken society.
And Then I Go, adapted by Brett Haley from Jim Shepard’s novel Project X (2005), continues themes centering on behavioural dynamics in boys that Grashaw began look at in Coldwater (2013). Vincent wanted the focus in this film to remain on how Edwin (Arman Darbo) and Flake (Sawyer Barth), the two teenage leads, related to one another in the face of loneliness, isolation, and depression. “I think I gravitate more towards these darker films,” he explained. “They have a lot to do with the dynamic of friendship and how powerful that is. When you’re young, those friendships mold who you are.”
Arman Darbo, the 16-year-old lead who worked with Chinese action star Tiger Chen in Kung Fu Hero (2012), and Sawyer Barth, best known for his work on TNT’s Public Morals (2015) and the Steven Spielberg-directed Bridge of Spies (2015), deliver blistering performances of heartbreak and sincerity that honor Grashaw’s vision for the film. “It wasn’t about a [high] school shooting; it wasn’t about the plotting of it,” he said. “It was important to show that these kids, especially Edwin, know the difference between right and wrong. But when you have a friend, and it’s just the two of you, what lengths will you go to in order to preserve that friendship?”
As fallible human beings, desperation and fear often lead us to act against our better judgement. Children are especially vulnerable and act irrationally when provoked by bullying, social isolation, anxiety, and depression. In that way, Edwin and Flake are just like all of us. Our characters are determined, however, by the way we deal with these adversities. And Then I Go is ultimately a film about choices. Edwin faces a crossroads in his young life. He has parents and a younger brother that love him, artistic talent that wins him friends, and curiosity that gives him potential. His loyalties to Flake, on the other hand, drive him toward destruction.
Edwin is a product of his environment. He looks for male role models within that world, but falls further into hopelessness. Grashaw identifies this as a major critique in the film: “It comes down to masculinity in a kid. Young boys need to know it’s okay to let your guard down and be vulnerable.” What he sees, instead, is manhood in paralysis: a well-meaning father (Justin Long) who can’t find the right words to show empathy; a teacher (Tony Hale) who’s a mechanical disciplinarian; and a man (Sean Bridgers) so callous that he attacks Edwin in front of his own son.
That latter scene, taking place in the park when Edwin is searching for solitude, pushes him one step closer to the precipice of hopelessness. “[T]here you have Edwin, again, on his own, during one of the only moments when he’s at peace. Then there’s this sort of confirmation that [abusive] behaviour is the reality of life, whether he’s in school of whether he’s older,” Vincent lamented. “It’s something that’s going to be a problem forever.” This desperation is the clearest insight we have into the motivation of school shooters.
Arman Darbo as Edwin (left) and Sawyer Barth as Flake (right). Photo courtesy of The Orchard.
Edwin’s experience gives us a point of departure for understanding the motivations of school shooters over the past two decades. “I’ve been seeing school shootings on the news since Columbine High School,” Grashaw told me. The media wants answers, so they ask questions like, ‘Were the shooters bullied? Were they loners?’ They want surface answers. Those aren’t the right questions to ask. You don’t get to the bottom of the real issues.”
Today mass shootings have become almost daily tragedies. But the Columbine massacre was a new kind of horror in 1999. Soon after, Glam metal superstar Marilyn Manson was blamed for inspiring Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris to murder 12 students and a teacher, wound 20 others, and kill themselves. This scapegoat tactic fueled a culture war started by the religious Right and conservative politicians years earlier to target musicians. As a result, shootings were covered in the media with sensational sound bites and demonization of the murderers without attempting to understand their motivations. “I think it’s a mistake to call these shooters monsters,” said Vincent. “They’re going through everyday things that every other kid is going through. So what pushed them over the edge? It lies deeper than media people want to admit.”
Arman Darbo as Edwin and Sawyer Barth as Flake. Photo courtesy of The Orchard.
Mental illness is still a difficult subject to discuss on a national level in the United States, especially when it involves children. But silence won’t help. A recent report by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) revealed that 1 in 5 children between the ages of 13 and 15 have or will suffer from either a mood disorder, behaviour or conduct disorder, or anxiety disorder. If not discussed during childhood, these issues will lead to lifetime struggles with mental illness and could even result in suicide or acts of large-scale violence against others. Looking at the facts, you realize that these kids aren’t monsters at all. They just want to be loved.
During a devastating moment in the film, Flake longingly discusses makeshift memorials that appear in the wake of tragedies. He romanticizes the flags, flowers, candles, poems, and pictures left in memory of the dead. Vincent explained the symbolism of this scene:
The idea of a shooting being a solution is on many kids’ minds. The two things that get you [mass media] attention are the amount of people you kill and how creative you are. All these kids that do this leave manifestos. They want to be heard. They know, if they do this, it’s a guarantee to be heard. They know they’re leaving something behind.
Photo courtesy of The Orchard.
Understanding mass shootings as the most visible cries for help in our desensitized culture reframes the gun control debate. Guns are not the problem. In addition to being vigilant when educating children about gun safety, we have to take the time to understand the factors that lead them to choosing gun violence as catharsis for their pain. And Then I Go can be a helpful tool for generating dialogues about a healthier society. For Vincent, that’s where the film can really have an impact: “We want people to see this and for it to resonate, for people to take action. Everyone can be proactive.”
And Then I Go is available now On Demand and On Digital. It is produced by Lunacy (USA) and is distributed by The Orchard (USA).