Few of us can imagine the awfulness of losing a child in one of America’s ever-growing list of senseless mass shootings at school. And if the parents of Rachel Joy Scott, the first victim of 1999’s Columbine High School massacre, want to see her as a girl steadfast in her faith and a moral example to others for her compassion as a way of coping with her death, you’d have to be pretty small to begrudge them that.
Sure, some of what they would have us know about her is myth and other parts of the movement she inspired seem more a conservative Christian misdirection aimed at deflecting criticism of the gun lobby. But the real Scott, like Anne Frank, was first and foremost a “normal” teenager — questioning, stumbling, hormonal and passionate about views every teen feels as if they’ve discovered before anybody else.
“I’m Not Ashamed” is a big screen attempt to put a human being inside a dead teenager who’s become a movement. Rachel was a sometimes bubbly/sometimes moody, PBR-drinking 17 year-old who seemed to accept the role she took on at Columbine — the school “Christian girl.”
The film suffers from abrupt, under-motivated transformations and has the pall of death hanging over it since we know what’s coming.
And it seriously stumbles in its attempt to portray the mass murderers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, as fans of Hitlerian “natural selection,” an agenda-driven interjection of creationist criticism that casts a cloud of doubt over every other belief passed off as fact here.
Rachel ( Masey McLain) is a pretty girl who just wants “a real boyfriend,” and complains to her quasi-“mean girl” posse that “Guys never think of me that way.” Prettier and more popular Madison (Victoria Staley) promises to fix that for her, to set her up with the drama club dreamboat, Alex (Cameron McKendry) who ends up being the aspiring actress’s “mentor.”
But Rachel has a credo, a word of warning for Maddie and eventually Alex — “I can’t really be fake…I’m not a social plastic person.”
The fact that she’s been wearing hats to school every day for a decade, that she covets the stand-out-from-the-crowd attention that most kids her age crave? Well, nobody ever said kids weren’t self-delusional about “fake” poses like that.
Rachel hangs with the cool kids/the smoking kids/the kids who drink PBR just long enough to get into trouble with her strict Christian mom (Terri Minton). She’s shipped off to an aunt and cousins in rural Louisiana. And that’s where she abruptly (on screen, at least), becomes devout, and keeps a journal of her struggles to become a Christian example to herself and others.
Brian Baugh’s film is on surest ground as it captures high school — the over-the-top bullying that anybody who’s “different” faces. Not so much Rachel, but Harris (David Errigo Jr.) and Klebold (Cory Chapman) endure humiliations from the jocks who are the coolest of the cool kids Rachel aspires to fit in with. She feels guilty and conflicted over this.
The family dynamic at home is circumscribed, but telling. Dad, who later testified before a Congressional committee, left them and isn’t even in the movie except as the cliche “Dad can’t take you for the weekend” absentee father. An older sister has become a short-skirted Goth, a younger brother turns jock, hanging with the bullies.
Rachel’s posse at school includes a “sensitive” (read “gay”) pal, and the beautiful, pierced and dangerous Celine (Emma Elle Roberts), whose promiscuity and hidden cutting suggest her own private torment.
Rachel’s reluctance to give up her “go with the crowd” mentality, pursuing her free spirited “spiritual” actor-hunk without opening up about her Christianity, feels real. In her other life, at night she hangs with a Christian youth group and relentlessly recruits a hunky homeless young man (Ben Davies) to join.
There’s a flirtatiousness to McLain’s performance that strips some of the saintliness off Rachel. She dresses with a certain sexual allure and bats her eyes to get her way, with boys and with her stepdad — who has a car she could really love to drive. Her other flaws pop up as “Pray I won’t drink this weekend” diary entries, and her determination to “kick” her relationship with Alex “up a few notches.”
The label “Little Miss Perfect” doesn’t quite fit.
After her abrupt conversion, Rachel slowly comes out of the closet about her faith, which rattles her friends in the most predictable way — “I will be SOooo glad when you get over this whole ‘Jesus Freak’ phase.”
But the film’s insistent pre-movement foreshadowing — “I’m gonna make a difference in the world somehow” — undercuts an earnest essay, delivered in class, about her ethos of “compassion.” The former feels like her family’s determination to make moral hay out of the latter.
And the grim climax to this overlong and somewhat convoluted picture points out the fallacy of the myth that grew up about Rachel, that she would not deny her faith when facing her death. It does seem to fit her personality, but real life rarely gives the noble such perfectly pat moments.
Dying on the lawn next to a grievously wounded friend who heard no such avowal of faith (the only surviving witness) seems senseless and the best argument for restrictions on gun ownership (and more attentive parenting) that the movie, and movement, are trying so very hard to avoid.