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Elephant examines a day in the life of a high school just before a Columbine-like shooting spree turns the idyll upside down. But even without the topicality and drama of that, it would be well worth a look, and a welcome return to form by director Gus Van Sant.

            Van Sant started out as a strong, independent personality with films like Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho, but wound up directing Finding Forrester and Good Will Hunting. And then came Gerry.

            There's a reason you probably haven't heard of Gerry before: The film consists almost entirely of two guys walking around lost in a desert, saying next to nothing. The movie seems to serve no purpose other than to let the director do the same. Van Sant appears desperate to strike out for unknown territory, and for some kind of artistic epiphany.

            Gerry never really goes beyond beautiful languor. There is some pseudo-profound talk of a "thing" at the end of the trail, and some other embarrassingly-101 nods at deepness.

            Elephant, you might say, is the thing at the end of the trail. Many of the same motifs are used, but this time they have found a proper home. Huge chunks of time are spent following a random sampling of students as they walk for minutes at a time through the halls.

            There are times where this feels a little aimless and undirected, but the cumulative effect is to saturate you with the lives of the students. Van Sant reclaims them from the distance of the surveillance video of the Columbine massacre, from the editorials, and from the laundry lists of reasons why the massacres happen.

            Those reasons are present in the film, but they aren't pushed as theories, merely shown to be part of the mosaic of the kids' lives. The viewer is free to find one reason more compelling than others, or to see no answers at all. In a way, Elephant doesn't so much avoid answers as present the answer as unknowable.

            But the film did add one more reason to the list for me: The students seem to have a disconnect from the world around them. Guns are ordered up with disconcerting ease over a laptop, and are then used on real people in the same point-and-shoot fashion practiced in video games.

            One student, the film's "good guy," thinks his father might have fought in World War II, even though his father is maybe 50. The student seems relatively unaffected by the massacre when it comes. And it comes care of two students who are so removed from the world outside their bedrooms they aren't sure what Hitler looks like.

            Some artistic license intrudes. The two murderous students dally a bit with homosexuality. Not only does this feel like a tic from a gay director, it feels implausible. The movie is not about Columbine, or any other specific situation, per se. Does Van Sant have a responsibility to stay with the real-life components of the scenario, or is he free to muse? At any rate, he has added to a long line of linking homosexuality with murderous deviance, however ambiguously the connection is made.

            Elephant walks the line between implicit commentary and mere depiction well enough. But what it finds is up to the viewer.

            Time is almost up to see Elephant, whichis only open for one week as part of the Little Theatre's Perpetual Film Festival. It will close Thursday, April 1.