I do not know if I have ever seen a film that offered a series of stunning revelations at the climax and then threw away the big finish with pair of directing theatrics totally out of place in the two-hour movie I had just seen. But even those mistakes do not stop "Home Room" from being a compelling film.
"Home Room" is about the aftermath of a shooting at a high school in a small town. Writer-Director Paul F. Ryan begins his film at the moment when the shooting is over and the first person we see is the tactical officer (Harper Johnston) who had to shoot the teenage boy inside the classroom. When Detective Martin Van Zandt (Victor Garber of "Alias") enters the room there the bodies of the shooter and his dead classmates, along with one living person, a girl standing in the corner.
Alicia Browning (Busy Philipps of "Dawson's Creek") is your typical Goth girl, but after being grilled by the police she goes home and turns herself blonde. Meanwhile, Van Zandt is ordered by his superior to find somebody to be held accountable for this tragedy. The shooter is dead and he killed his parents, from whom he got his gun, but the community is outraged and demands somebody be brought to justice. When it turns out that the shooter called Alicia the night before and talked for an hour, she becomes the prime suspect.
All Alicia wants to do is to graduate from high school and get out of town as quickly as possible. She has already missed a year of school, further alienating her from her classmates. When she goes to school to study for final exams she discovers it is closed, and when Principal Robbins (James Pickens, Jr.) learns she is spending her time smoking on the roof of her house, he forces Alicia to look in on Deanna Cartwright (Erika Christensen of "Traffic"), who is recovering from both a head wound and the trauma of being shot at the local hospital. The two have never talked before and Alicia dismisses Deanna, at one point calling her a girl who would see the silver lining in a mushroom cloud.
Obviously we have seen countless films where two people who have nothing in common forged a friendship, however unlikely and tenuous. But in "Home Room" that is only the framework for dealing with the aftermath of a traumatic experience. There are depths to both characters to be explored and this film takes its time in doing so. All of the dramatic threads come together in a scene that takes us back to where we started and examines from a different perspective what we think we know about what happened and these characters. You might see one of the surprises that comes in this climatic scene, but I do not think anybody is going to see all of them coming.
But then we are treated to a montage of the teenagers offering explanations as to "why" that looks like a public service announcement by the government and then goes right into a music video as Sarah McLachlan's "Sweet Surrender" provides a musical benediction to the final silent scene between Deanna and Alicia. I swear, it was like somebody else came in and directed the final minutes of the movie. From a dramatic narrative "Home Room" suddenly becomes a film that wants to discuss big issues out in the real world and the shift is just too abrupt and too heavy handed.
"Home Room" comes down to the performances of Philipps and Christensen, who both do a good job of getting beyond the stereotypical characters to show the traumatic aftermath of what they have been through, even as we are learning more about those traumas. I am sure there are serious discussions to be had over the question of violence and shootings in schools, and watching this film may well engender them. But I still think the human drama here stands on it's own, despite the problematic ending.