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Tuesday, April 10, 2018

CIFF Review: THE RAINBOW EXPERIMENT Is Expansive and Uneven

The Rainbow Experiment tells the story of Matty, the vivacious but cruel class clown at a NYC high school, and the accident that put him in the hospital. The accident happens just before the movie begins, with the film following the many branches of the path coming out of it. It follows Matty's father as he tries to process his grief; the school's principal as he accidentally sends a worrying e-mail to the parents of every student in the school and causes a PR firestorm; the Department of Education trying to investigate the teacher who was supposed to be overseeing the classroom; and the other students in the class who are trying to cope with the loss of their friend. It ALSO follows a narcoleptic security guard trying to maintain his dignity; a British cafeteria worker dealing drugs to the students; a closeted teacher who may be attracted to him; a drunk father trying to stop his daughter from doing drugs; a suicidal ex-wife who shows up at the worst moment; and a number of other stories. 

And therein lies the fundamental problem with The Rainbow Experiment. The core story here is powerful and affecting. Who is to blame for this accident? Can the teacher ever live with herself? Did the students acting out have a responsibility? Or is it the principal who gave the students too much leeway? There is the obvious cause, but that's not the entire story, and the film's basic goal is to dig into the vast social web social connections to talk about how there is no one obvious villain, but instead a series of problems and mistakes, of life getting in the way. I really love the film's dedication to parsing out all those many threads. But that same dedication sometimes causes it to get lost in... well, some less interesting roundabouts, we'll say.

This fascination with following all the various threads of a story leads the film to waste enormous chunks of time with the worst storyline imaginable. In it, a drunk father who has been banned from the school grounds is trying to hunt down a drug-dealing cafeteria worker with the help of the cafeteria worker's philosophical Eastern European friend who is in deep to loan sharks. For a film that prides itself on digging into the authenticity of its core cast, you may notice the sheer number of stock drama tropes jammed into those three characters. What's worse is that none of them matter at all until a single dramatic moment later in the story, and you realize that everything you'd just seen was set-up for a single moment that just... doesn't work. Rather than digging more into what seemed like the central thesis of the film, the movie veers into Lifetime Originals territory, and in that moment, seems to change what it is saying almost completely.

There is a lot to like about The Rainbow Experiment. Its ghostly narrator vanishes almost completely at a certain point, but he's used well initially. One great scene finds the film's narrator railing against one of the characters for telling us the truth about a previous scene, a great conceit I wish the film had done more with. There are a few moments of pitch black comedy that work really well, and Christina Kallas is good at crafting distinctive characters who heighten the reality just a bit beyond normal, though admittedly a small handful of the characters take it WAY too far in that direction. And the film's editing is exciting and ambitious even if it doesn't always work, doubling back over scenes almost as soon as they happened or using splitscreen to show us different pieces of a jumbled, deeply emotional conversation all happening at the same time. Kallas is experimenting here; as with the experiment in the film, it doesn't always go to plan, but it's interesting to see.

It also, for all that I talk about the heightened reality Kallas has created, manages to get at something surprisingly true and accurate about the way public education and its bureaucracies function. It's an incredibly minor piece of the overall story, but the fights between the teachers, the union, and the administration are real and earned and lived-in in a way that few other conflicts in the movie really are. Part of the problem, the film posits, is that there is no one fault for the accident, but bureaucracies - each of which are built to protect their own power and pass blame elsewhere - are incapable of functioning with an ambiguous truth. Early on in the film, a number of the core players in Matty's accident isolate themselves or are isolated by the existing power structures, and a great deal of the fighting and bickering that follows is a result of those acts of self-protection.

In a way, The Rainbow Experiment is put together like a puzzle. But it's a puzzle where 80% of the pieces are totally normal jigsaw puzzle pieces and you're having a great time trying to piece them together, but 20% of the pieces come from a completely different puzzle, one of those 25 piece children's puzzles, and they sort of fit, but man do they dumb down the overall aesthetic. As metaphors go, that one isn't particularly tight, but then, neither is the film. The Rainbow Experiment has moments of brilliance, often sat right next to some of the film's most contrived and hollow moments. It's a memorable but almost profoundly uneven experience, and the parts that don't work really hold the movie back.

The Rainbow Experiment was written and directed by Christina Kallas. It stars Connor Siemer and Nina Mehta.
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