REVIEW WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER/For Digital First Media
“White Rabbit” opens on an ominous note. A seemingly discomfited teen boy, Harlon Mackey (Nick Krause) is sitting in his truck, then gets outs with a rifle in hand. He is headed toward his high school. Can anything good come of this situation?
The film then has a flashback to Harlon’s second birthday party, with him sitting in front of a cake all alone. His booze-swilling dad, Darrell (Sam Trammel from “True Blood”), and mom, Ruby (Dodie Brown), are engaged in a screaming match. It has all the earmarks of an ongoing pattern of animated agitation. Meanwhile, Harlon’s older brother and sister run hooping and hollering throughout the house.
As the argument escalates, Ruby accuses Darrell of shaking young Harlon. Darrell denies it, insisting that the boy is just fragile. Darrell then asserts that Harlon is mentally enfeebled and pointedly asks Ruby whether she has “retards” on her side of the family. He then launches into a tirade, prompted by the fact that Harlon was caught playing with his sister’s doll. To this backwoods bumpkin, having a son, who is in any way girly, would be a fate worse than death.
In one of the film’s few touching vignettes, Darrell sits down with a teary-eyed Harlon. The two share a father-son moment as Darrell teaches Harlon the fine points of blowing out the candles on a birthday cake.
Darrell takes a nine-year old Harlon (Robert Michael Szot) and his older brother hunting. Dad points out a white rabbit to Harlon and exhorts him to shoot it. Harlon reluctantly takes aim and fires, wounding the rabbit in the process. Darrell and Harlon approach the fallen rabbit. As they stand over it, Darrell orders his son to finish off the rabbit, “It’s called hunting, son. Shoot that animal and you kill it, that’s what the rifle is for, kill him.”
Harlon is haunted by his role in kicking the poor, innocent rabbit. When his older brother teases him about it, Harlon flips out and pulls a rifle on him. Is this an early indication that Harlon is not only sensitive, but prone to psychological melt-downs?
The film makes another temporal jump and to find Harlon as a seventeen-year old high school junior. He has only a single friend, Steve (Ryan Lee). Harlon and his diminutive sidekick are subjected to ongoing bullying by some of their more macho high school classmates.
One day, while waiting for the school bus to arrive, a jock demands that Harlon fetch him a soda from a vending machine. Harlon protests that he won’t get back in time to take the bus. His tormentor doesn’t care a whit. Of course, by the time that Harlon returns, the bus is pulling away and Harlon is forced to walk to school.
By the time that Harlon reaches school, he is late. When he enters his first period class, the teacher publically excoriates him for his tardiness. Later, Harlon is called into the principal’s office. He experiences further humiliation when he is advised that he will have to repeat the eleventh grade.
There seems to be a little silver lining in Harlon’s life when an attractive, new girl, Julie (Britt Robertson), moves into town. Meet cute? Well, maybe not so much. The new girl approached Harlon at a local convenience store, when she insists that he buy her a soda. At least this time around, the redundant plot device has a different function. Julie is intent on doing some random shoplifting and needs Harlon to run some interference. Will their chance encounter portend a more substantive dynamic between them? In the alternative, will disappointment in the fledgling relationship prompt Harlon to do something rash? Harlon is an inveterate comic book reader. He hears voices in his head, culled from the characters in them. Will Harlon succumb to their suggestions?
The screenplay by Anthony Di Pietro is amateurish. It is never adequately explicates whether the protagonist is mentally retarded, mentally ill, or both. Does Pietro understand the distinctions between or has he simply conflated the different maladies? I had the gnawing concern that he didn’t. The direction by Tom McCann is mediocre at best. Only a performance by Sam Trammel as the dad makes much of a lasting impression.
The film takes an important topic and reduces it to banality. It is vastly inferior to the treatment of the same subject matter in the film, ”We Need to Talk About About Kevin.”
Even making allowances for its miniscule budget, “White Rabbit” must be considered a failure. It descends down a deep, dark conceptual rabbit hole.
*1/2 No MPAA rating 89 minutes
Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.