School massacres are excessively hard to portray when Columbine still hangs over our heads, years and years later, and the copy cat attacks that have happened since. Not only that, but to touch on these topics brings a certain sensationalistic feeling that can go only two ways: either the director will find their footing and turn the topic into something worth talking about long after the movie is over or it’ll tank miserably.
Hello Herman floats, though somewhat lopsidedly. I believe this is because Michelle Danner’s approach, while heavy-handed, was also sincere. I liked that Danner wanted to talk about the person behind the gun. Hello Herman‘s platform is to study the entirety of the shooter and not just the bits and pieces that the media torments out of the grieving family. Danner builds a halting background story of cruelly bullied Herman Howards (exceptionally played by newcomer Garrett Backstrom) that plots out a killing spree and executes it with the kind of precision of that you’d expect from a soldier. Herman’s rampage is teased out in bits and pieces by Lax Morales, played with a startling fragility by Norman Reedus, who visibly carries his own internal torment.
Lax is seemingly chosen by Herman because of Lax’s web show, which comes with the slogan, “Leave your morals at the door” which should you give you an idea of the open-mindedness of the show. But when Lax sits down with Herman for the first time, Herman is dead quiet. It’s only after a sharp, uncomfortable silence in which Lax tries to prod Herman into talking, that Herman finally snaps, “So why’d you bash that kid to death in Georgia?”
Lax barely conceals a jolt and you can see him realize that this kid isn’t there to spill his guts. Herman is unrepentant about what he’s done and ready to gloat about it. This leaves Lax looking equal parts disturbed, angry, and curious. As Herman’s story unravels, Lax’s own back story unwinds in between. The similarities between the two feel a lot of like coincidence but it works here. Lax is the archetype of washed up nobody until his past spills out and it is worth it to watch that play out. What I like best about Lax’s story is that, not once during this whole movie, does Lax suddenly become cured of his demons. If anything, dealing with Herman breaks him apart and the same could be said for Lax’s influence on Herman. Herman’s humanity comes in swells, like the ocean. It takes Lax pushing at him for the real Herman to show himself and even then, I’m left thinking that the embittered Herman who snaps at Lax is just as real as the soft child.
The movie’s biggest success was managing to remind me that Herman was still a human being, which is something I can’t say I remember when I think of the Columbine shootings. The best parts of this movie, hands down, are when Lax is interviewing Herman. Herman deflects Lax’s questions by attacking Lax’s past and Lax counters by throwing reminders Herman murdered innocent people. They strike and hiss at one another like wounded snakes forced into the same carrier, going for blood each time. I have to say that it takes some serious chops to step into the ring with Reedus, who is well-known for his gift in bringing damaged characters to life, and Backstrom not only holds his own but manages to shine as the harshly antagonizing teen concealing a terrified little kid’s heart. He’s going to be a face to watch for.
Outside of Lax and Herman however, the movie slides into an inevitable slog. I believe this is solely because Hello Herman wanted to address too many things at once. I believe that the movie wanted to talk about bullying, which it did. It also wanted to talk about the media’s stone-throwing and the mighty political fist that slams down and sends a ripple affect out across the land. It wanted to talk about the circus surreality that life takes on for the families, both of the victims and the perpetrator. However, the issue that bogged the movie down for me was that even though I was reminded that Herman was a person, I still couldn’t feel for someone who’d murdered children, even if that someone was a tortured child himself. I could hurt for the other aspects of Herman: the bullied student, the son with the emotionally unavailable mother, and the brother who failed his sister in her time of need. All those parts of him still make my chest tight. But the part of him that could let him do something so evil, as Lax puts it, leaves me cold. Though to be honest, I don’t know if that’s a failing of the movie as much as it is part and parcel of the big question we face whenever something like this happens and we find a child is to blame: can we justify murder?
Hello Herman doesn’t quite provide an answer or even new reasons to old answers. But it does make you think and in the end, I think just by making me look in Herman’s eyes and then through them, that Danner succeeded in something monumental.
Hello Herman is available for rent and can be found in select theaters, all listed here.
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