If there’s one hot button issue that truly divides America, then it’s gun control. In the wake the outbreak of school shootings in the 90’s and 2000’s, the notion that stricter gun control laws could have saved countless lives has sparked an intense debate between staunch defense of the 2nd amendment right to bear arms against society’s responsibility to protect its citizenry from those that would abuse that right. American cinema (outside of Bowling for Columbine) has never really confronted this issue heads-on in a meaningful or substantial way, and because of this, 2005’s Independent Spirit Award nominee American Gun seems like a relevant and (even six years later) still timely discussion of this pressing American issue. Presenting a realistic look at the violence and tragedy that guns have wrought on our schools and inner-cities, American Gun still manages to present a fairly balanced and rational look at guns in a way that should spark great discussion from open-minded individuals on both sides of the gun issue.

Shot on handheld cameras to increase the visceral emotion of the film, director Aric Avelino’s American Gun is a tale that spans from coast to coast as it weaves together three distinct stories to frame its narrative. In Oregon, we get the tale of a community that still suffers even three years later from the memories of a Columbine-esque shooting at the local high school that claimed many lives. Janet Huttenson (Marcia Gay Harden) is the mother of one of the boys who committed the shooting itself. She has lost her job, her husband, and any friends she had in the community in the wake of the shootings, and now she works double-shifts at a textile factory just to keep her younger son David (Chris Marquette) in a private school so he won’t be forced to attend the same high school where his brother committed a massacre. Simultaneously in this town, local cop Frank (Tony Goldwyn) is haunted by the memories of that fateful day and his inability to stop that tragedy from occurring. This all takes place against the back-drop of the three year anniversary of the shooting and a media frenzy that has descended on the town in the interim.

Another story takes place in and around an inner-city high school in Chicago. Forrest Whitaker plays Carter, the principal of a violence-infested high school where he tries to make whatever bit of difference in these kids’ lives that he possibly can while keeping the school safe at the cost of his relationship with his wife and son. Marcus (Chris Warren, Jr.) is a student at the school who carries a gun to school (but hides it in the alleyways outside during school) but is actually incredibly intelligent and hard-working but simply carries a gun to protect himself on the rough streets where he lives and works. The last (and easily weakest) story is that of a grandfather (Donald Sutherland) and his granddaughter (Linda Cardellini) who work in a gun store in Charlottesville, Virginia on the University of Virginia campus which is meant to show the peaceful and non-violent aspect of gun ownership and also to show how ignorant the grandfather can be to the violence that the weapons he deals in can cause.

With its large ensemble cast, this film’s performances are simply splendid. Marcia Gay Harden fully embodies the tragic bitterness and mental exhaustion that being in Janet’s position would cause someone. When she confronts a group of neighbors who are defacing her lawn and harassing her family, she taps into a level of rage and shame that makes the scene incredibly difficult to watch for its realism. Chris Marquette (The Girl Next Door) also nails a certain level of teenage apathy amongst youthful vulnerability that make him as sympathetic a character as his mother. Forrest Whitaker is a marvel as always, and he too channels a level of world-weary fatigue that shows how dealing with violence day-in and day-out can rob a man of his soul. At the same time, when the film calls for it, Whitaker is also able to ratchet up the intensity to show how he can put the fear of god into his students. While her part doesn’t give her much to work with, Linda Cardellini left me wondering yet again why she hasn’t been a bigger star. While we all know her comedy chops are finely tuned, she shows a heart-breaking dramatic side in this film, and she simply deserves wider exposure.

The film does occasionally use cheap storytelling tricks to play on our emotions, but that almost seems to come with the subject that it’s tackling. High school shootings and gun violence have been so overdone and are such sensitive issues that it’s almost impossible to find any freshness in these stories. However, the film does find its own fresh and original voice; it’s just that many of the scenarios are essentially familiar. Also, virtually the entire storyline with Donald Sutherland and Linda Cardellini seems fairly uneventful and boring compared to the rest of the film. Linda Cardellini’s ennui and angst aren’t given any real explanation except for one event that occurs when she’s already disattached to her job and family. I know why it’s in the film which is to show that the people that sell guns aren’t bad and shouldn’t necessarily be held responsible for the violence committed by the weapons they sell, but it just seems stylistically out of touch with the rest of the film which takes a bolder stance on the topic than this semi cop-out.

Even if you’re a card-carrying member of the NRA, as long as you are capable of having a rational discourse on your beliefs, then I heartily recommend that everyone go out and watch this film. At a perfectly reasonable length, the film tells its stories with efficiency while simultaneously adding dimension to the characters and settings without becoming bloated or especially preachy. As a matter of fact, it would perhaps be a misrepresentation of the film to say that it is an argument for gun control as it much more happy to simply make statements of fact about the violence and tragedy gun abuse can cause and simply allow the audience to draw its own conclusions from this evidence. It’s not a perfect film, but it’s minor flaws should not discourage anyone with an interest in socially-conscious film-making to sit back and enjoy this independently produced gem.

Final Score: A-

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