On April 20, 1999, two high school seniors, Eric Harris and Dyland Klebold, opened fire on the grounds of Columbine High School, killing twelve students and one teacher, in addition to injuring twenty-one students as a few tried to escape the chaos happening in real-time, before they turned the gun on themselves. The attack is widely considered to be the most horrific and deadly school shooting in the history of the U.S. (up until the mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2015) and spawned a vigorous and contentious debate revolving around a simple and difficult question in the months after the tragedy: why did they do it?
In the years after the event, we’re seen filmmakers try to tackle this distressing and disturbing material, as well as to try to ask this fundamental question, which is still up for debate, even to this very day. Late last year Pure Flix Entertainment decided to wade into this territory with their take on the tragedy with I’m Not Ashamed, dealing with the life of one of the first victims of the massacre: Rachel Joy Scott.
For those of you who aren’t familiar: Pure Flix is a studio devoted to making faith-based pictures, featuring actors and actresses you’ve probably forgotten about, from Kevin Sobro to Melissa Joan Hart. They’re also the studio that made two of the dumbest, most insufferable films of the last 15 years: one in the form of right-wing religious propaganda in God’s Not Dead; the other being an infuriating romance drama called Old Fashioned, the latter being so awful, I found it difficult to even make a review out of it. As someone who has experience in witnessing some of their works, I feared the absolute worst. Subtly, restraint and exploring complex themes are not tools in the studio’s toolbox, and I feel that’s what needs to be required in telling the sobering account of a dark day in American history.
Let’s just say, they actually surprised me in focusing on Rachel (Masey McLain) as a regular high school student – she had friends, went to parties, drank underage and smoked cigarettes, all while fretting about her identity and what she wants to do once she graduates. Rachel is a Christian in relapse, until she is sent to visit her aunt Bea (Koire Robertson – yes, from Duck Dynasty) on her farm, and becomes a born-again believer; much to the displeasure of her secularist friends and potential crush, Alex (Cameron McKendry), the more and more she becomes outspoken about her faith. This being a biopic on the short life of Scott, there’s much debate on the final moments where Eric asks her if she’s a Christian, her saying that she is, and then telling her to go be with him before he kills her. I don’t know if this part actually happened, and frankly, the only people who know what were said is the victim and her killer, but in the context of how the filmmakers present Rachel as something as a modern-day martyr who would not deny her faith at gunpoint, the effect comes off as one of the most exploitative and mildly tasteless biopics this side of the notorious John Belushi biopic Wired.
And yet…..I’m Not Ashamed isn’t fully the disaster I thought it would be, and I feel that’s in large part to the performance of McLain. She capture’s Rachel’s generosity, her kind-spirit and a desire to be a force for good in the world. You generally feel sadness that the life of such a beautiful & caring young woman was cut short by the actions of two extremely disturbed young men, and the naturalistic approach to her performance at times, negates the sledgehammer-like pounding the filmmakers harp on about how her faith is being tested. Another rarity in a Pure Flix movie (or any faith-heavy movie in general) is seeing a character of Christian faith who actually practices what the gospel preaches she does: she helps a homeless youth, shows kindness and compassion towards everyone, including her bullied peers, and doesn’t pass judgement on people she doesn’t know. As someone who’s sat through insulting, patronizing shite like God’s Not Dead and Last Ounce of Courage, it’s refreshing to see a character that doesn’t walk around with a persecution complex.
Despite a fine performance by Maisey McLain, as Rachel Joy Scott, the same can’t be said about how the film defines Eric and Dylan, or the lack of one. As I said before, there are numerous accounts – from the journals of the killers, to their acquaintances and friends, to professors in mental health – which attempt to uncover the motivations of the two shooters, but the filmmakers don’t take an interest is finding out what made them commit such a heinous act of violence, outside of the two enjoying playing violent video games and being interested in Hitler’s Mein Kampf and the belief of natural selection. I understand not wanting to glorify or condone the actions of Harris and Klebold, but blanketing their actions as under what they were reading, playing and not being religious is just as disingenuous and it highlights a lack of insight into the two disturbed gunmen who are just as pivotal in the tragedy of Columbine as Rachel herself was.
I’m Not Ashamed isn’t a good movie. It’s too sentimental, it foreshadows the looming tragedy like a brick to the face, and it preaches to it’s evangelical Christian demographic early and often; in addition, the film tries to paint its heroine as a martyr who died because she refused to forsake her beliefs in the face of adversity and in death, which I felt was spectacularly ill-advised in a film dealing with the Columbine massacre. Yet, the nuanced and graceful portrayal of Scott by its star occasionally raises the uneasy feeling that the filmmakers simply told this story to advance this victim complex narrative that Christians are under attack by secular forces. If you’re looking for insight on the tragedy, you’re better off watching Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine or the 2003 Palme d’Or winner Elephant, by Gus Van Sant, not this near exploitative pandering.