In one of the very first scenes of Vincent Grashaw’s And Then I Go, fourteen-year-old protagonist Edwin (Arman Darbo) struggles to open an uncooperative locker in a middle school hallway during the brief, cacophonous rush between periods. The intimate and tangible attention to detail in this moment brings the viewer immediately back to that time and place in their own lives. The immersive feeling continues, too; only a few minutes later, we see a schoolyard fight unfold in exactly the blunt but specific way in which such things have always happened to kids like Edwin and continue to happen to them today, with bullies who are dumb enough to express themselves with their fists but observant enough to know just how to get you to lash out first. Grashaw so expertly pulls the viewer into that feeling of misfit teenagedom–where you’re old enough to be enraged by your place in the world but helpless, not yet granted the agency to do anything about it–that the identification with Edwin is already sealed long before you realize he’s on the path to possibly opening fire on his classmates with his friend’s father’s rifle.
That friend is known as Flake (Sawyer Barth, magnetic in the role), Edwin’s only friend and sometimes tormentor. The shooting is Flake’s idea and Edwin, at first, only agrees to it to keep from looking weak in front of his taller, fitter buddy. But as we watch Edwin, in the days leading up to the school assembly Flake has chosen as the target date, interacting with his other students and the adults in his life (Melanie Lynskey and Justin Long as his parents; Carrie Preston as his art teacher; Tony Hale as the principal), we see him struggle with the decision. He goes back and forth, depending on the kindness of a fellow student (The Fits‘ Royalty Hightower) or the brutishness of another kid’s asshole father (Sean Bridgers). Grashaw leaves us wondering, right up until the very end, whether or not Edwin will go through with it. We hope he doesn’t but we queasily sympathize with his rage all the same.
Long and Hale are best known for being funny (Lynskey and Preston are no slouches in the laughs department either) and Grashaw, along with screenwriter Brett Haley (adapting Jim Shepard’s novel, Project X), wisely avoid advising them to play against type. One of the most welcome but surprising things about And Then I Go is its consistent dosage of effective, humanistic comedy. Every laugh at recognizable and relatable moments–like Edwin and Flake being dressed down by a bully two years younger than they are–eases the tension but increases the heartache.
Apart from the two young leads, Lynskey and Long are the standouts in the supporting cast. Their characters are undeniably good parents but their failing is that of every parent of a teenager: They can’t even begin to understand their kid, even when they think they do. Adults can never quite seem to reckon with just how much they can’t fathom their own children.
So many movies about, for lack of a less cheesy term, “troubled teens” adopt the parents’ view as the dominant one (Thirteen, the recent French Islamic-radicalization drama Heaven Will Wait). As a result, they devolve into evening news scare tactics–“Do you know what your kids are up to?” And Then I Go is far more bold and far more powerful by actually daring to consider the point of view of the kid. There’s a motif, in Edwin’s encounters, of flying; a model rocket, a styrofoam glider. It’s heartbreaking and beautiful to project Edwin’s delicate soul onto these soaring objects, rising above the constant, dull pain of his life. It’s also terrifying to contemplate the lengths to which he might go to achieve that escape.