***SPOILER ALERT*** Alright, if you haven't seen it, watch it right now and then let's return to this conversation, because this movie is unexpected and necessary.
I was into the dark and mysterious when I was a kid, and then in 1999 I got in trouble for wearing a trenchcoat at my Catholic gradeschool. We just happened to be 5 guys who wanted to look distinguished and then Columbine made us (literally) cut our coats short. School changed, our view on public places changed, and while everyone was saying "Never Again!" we ended up over the last couple years hearing about school or public shootings every other week it seemed. I always thought "There's got to be an answer to why this happens..." and MAYBE I wanted it to be more sinister or complicated, but I didn't expect the best answer to be "mental health."
The movie follows Sue, the only parent of a Columbine shooter to ever speak publicly, the tortured mother of mass murderer Dylan Klebold. Sue reminisces about happy times and reads through some of her journal entries pondering the question "How could this have happened without my knowing?" The film continues telling Sue's story as a part of our American story of shootings and successfully connects it with suicide. This is where the film has true strength and stands out from other documentaries and books about Columbine.
Admittedly, if you're looking for a salacious documentary that speculates what triggers and what events actually led to a boy becoming a killer, this is not for you. The film explains that all the answers you assumed were wrong. It shows how much the media and public just want to have an excuse to blame either parenting, video games, or any other outside influence other than the workings within the brain. The evidence just isn't in the favor of those assumptions. Perhaps that's because we're not doing anything about mental health as individuals and in society and there's some secret hidden guilt within. And truthfully, the vulnerable mother of a shooter, Sue Klebold wouldn't want to be in a film that just satisfies the curiosity of an audience looking for juicy details. The film covers the example of shooters that surprised their families by hiding their inner struggles and secret lives, and in the film New York Times writer Lisa Belkin says "We do not want to believe that could be true."
We get to hear from mass shooting experts, top psychologists around the country (included former Google psychology specialist Tom Insel, and psychologist/researcher Tony Biglan from the big tobacco court cases), and we explore the media's poor treatment of the coverage and the facts of this tragedy. Hearing key points pulled from Dylan's journal about his declining mental state solidifies the prevailing notion that the reason we keep hearing about shootings has to do with internal pain and an unhealthy brain. But it's not your typical "talking heads" documentary.
"American Tragedy" still has STUNNING reenactments just like Netflix's "Wormwood" directed by Errol Morris, minus the Hollywood actors (and thankfully, not nearly as lengthy as Wormwood). Although, somehow they found a woman who looks and acts JUST like Sue Klebold. I heard that the real Sue Klebold actually said 'Is that footage of me??' when she saw amateur actress Mary Dyer portray the mother of Columbine shooter Dylan Klebold.
The tone is dark and really takes you back to the feeling of watching the news coverage when it was happening live. It's upsetting and even makes you begin to question your own parenting - but then it takes a turn of hope, and explores what society and individuals could do to instill "emotional resilience" into your children. The mood of the music suddenly lifts your heart as you watch Sue join other suicide loss survivors and it dawns on you that tragedies like these turn the victims into forces for good who dedicate their lives to prevention and healing. That's the miracle that I noticed while watching this.
The music is as dramatic as the story, and my wife wants to buy the soundtrack. It's heartbreaking and delivers to you the emotions that Sue must feel when thinking back to seeing her sons play together and the memory of what was once a happy family. If the goal was for us to empathize with a parent that receives all the blame, consider this film a success.
The context of the making of this film a little bit amazes me, because this documentary was made by only a handful of people! What! They sort of blended talking heads with cinematic storytelling. It's also a relief to see that it was a project created by a non-profit, which is the first time I've ever heard of a documentary being produced by an organization whose sole purpose is to help parents. And a quality documentary, to boot.
IN SUMMARY: Sue Klebold is the premier example of overcoming and becoming an advocate for the cause of preventing violence through achieving mental health. This film clearly is geared toward parents who are concerned about their children's health and safety. It makes you feel like you're part of the #CommitToBrainFit cause and that there's something you can do within your homes to help. The best parts of the documentary are the sides of the story we never ever got to hear from the perspective of a beautifully strong mother. If you're wanting a make-you-feel-scared documentary that deters you from walking to your car at night or convinces you to shield and homeschool your kids, this isn't for you. This is for those who want to seriously know the answer to what causes and what society needs to prevent another Columbine.