Hello Herman

Hello Herman


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

There have, to date, been around 270 school shootings in America and at least 35 films about them. The majority of the real events had few, if any, fatalities, but in films we see each murderous character trying to take out more people than the last, aiming for a record. Like the kids at the heart of the issue, these films compete for attention whilst undertaking a desperate search for meaning. Sometimes they are successful; sometimes they become just another statistic.

Hello Herman is a film about conversations in which the shooting functions as a speech act its perpetrator felt unable to make any other way. Having shot dead 39 students, two teachers and a police officer, 16 year old Herman (Garret Backstrom) then decides he wants tell his story to radio host Lax Morales (Norman Reedus). It's a scenario reminiscent of Pump Up The Volume where the local DJ seems to be the only one who understands. Perhaps the boy is reaching out to an idol but if so, he's disappointed. Despite troubles of his own, Lax can only fleetingly empathise with what the boy did. Furthermore, the gulf of understanding in their interviews makes it all the more obvious that Herman is just a child. This makes his insights into his own triggers (a smorgasbord of bullying, loneliness and violent video games) less than reliable, something it's not clear the filmmakers understand.

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America being one of the three nations in the world that still execute children, the film's other strand looks at the death penalty debate, though from a rather shallow angle. Snippets of a FOX-style news channel show adults getting all het up about whether or not the kid should be killed live on TV. It will make us all feel safer, say some. It's inhumane, say others. Nobody considers that it might actually put the public off the death penalty, despite statistics that tell us this happens to people who watch executions directly.

In fact, there are very few points at which this story delivers anything with weight or complexity, anything beyond the obvious, despite the success of the play from which it was adapted (also by John Buffalo Mailer, son of Norman). Musings on the behaviour of Herman's single mother (played by the director) suggest the writer may have inherited some of his father's misogyny, for all that we get to hear her point of view. The only other female characters in the film are cruel and deceptive, apart from Lax's girlfriend, who is merely decorative. But arguably this is fair in a film about male anger; it just helps to strip away context in a film that is struggling to develop it in the first place.

Ultimately, Lax is the more interesting character. This is not to diminish Backstrom, who works hard with what he has and is generally convincing, but he is a kid with little character arc and less perspective (even if one might feel sympathy for him). Lax, meanwhile, has spent time undercover to investigate the KKK, and this backstory provides some of the more interesting scenes in the film, despite his moment of crisis being rooted in a rather crude clash between Kantian principle and utilitarian ethics. The white supremacists are crudely drawn but there is at least some tension. Lax's moral vulnerability gives him a depth sadly missing from the rest of the film.

Ultimately, Hello Herman suffers not so much from its boldly stated anti-bullying agenda but from its failure to come to any conclusions. Yes, it's important to ask questions but we've heard them before ad this doesn't give us anything new to wrestle with. It too often resorts to taking the easy route; the closing shot is first glimpsed halfway through the film and you'll know it when you see it. Still, there are good intentions here and Reedus' understated performance gives it a dignity some of its contemporaries sadly lack.

Reviewed on: 04 Aug 2013
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Hello Herman packshot
A journalist with a troubled past interviews a boy who has committed mass murder at his school.
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Director: Michelle Danner

Writer: John Buffalo Mailer

Starring: Norman Reedus, Garrett Backstrom, Martha Higareda, Michelle Danner

Year: 2012

Runtime: 90 minutes

Country: US


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