MAIN STREET — The lonely, awkward teenager gets one more mean text, or is shoved in the hallway once too often, and he snaps, with what follows breaking the hearts of parents who had never noticed the kid’s growing isolation.
This is the subject of Santa Monica director Michelle Danner’s latest film, “Hello Herman,” which will have a red-carpet premier for the DVD release at the Edgemar Center for the Arts on Oct. 10. Proceeds for the event will benefit educational screenings across the country.
“This movie is about what happens when our children fall through the cracks,” Danner said. “There isn’t just one issue contributing to the escalating violence in teens. There are a multitude of them.”
“Hello Herman” was originally a novella, adapted to a play, written by John Buffalo Mailer, the son of American literary lion Norman Mailer. It’s about a bullied teenager who cracks one day, the carnage that follows and the manipulated journalist who tries to tell his side of the story.
Mailer said he was appalled at the Columbine massacre of 1999, when teenagers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold went on a shooting rampage at their Colorado high school, killing 15 (including themselves) and injuring another 24.
“When Columbine happened, I personally wanted answers,” Mailer said. “I disagreed with the media coverage at the time. ‘Hello Herman’ was a way to explore this thing that can’t be explained. Rich white kids from the suburbs attacking us with machine guns. Where was this coming from?”
Both Danner and Mailer believe that the violence of today’s video game zeitgeist has something to do with the cultural shift.
“People are spending more and more time with machines,” Mailer said.
But Danner is convinced that the bullying that seems endemic in youth culture today is a big part of the alienation that spurs children to commit unspeakable acts.
“We are protagonists to this problem,” Danner said. “You have a kid who is bullied — especially cyber bullying — who is depressed, who is neglected, whose parents are so wrapped up in their own lives they don’t see their children slipping away and what happens? They keep their anger focused inward and do away with themselves or the rage turns outward and they hurt others.”
Unlike Jared Loughner, who killed six people and injured 14 others, including Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, or Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech student who killed 32 and wounded dozens before killing himself in 2007, the Herman of Danner’s film is not psychotic. Nor is the film necessarily an anti-gun diatribe. Danner sees other, more subtle societal influences.
“This movie is not about pointing a finger,” Danner said. “The media glorifies shooters, but it’s not about that. We are becoming desensitized to violence. Kids don’t see their bullying behavior as bad. Nobody came through for Herman and that’s the story I wanted to tell.”
Garrett Backstrom, the young actor who plays Herman in the film, agreed that peer pressure is a contributing factor to youth’s disaffection today.
“I was bullied in junior high school myself,” Backstrom said. “And video games are just sick. ‘Grand Theft Auto 5?’ Counselors need to be active in schools because kids get ideas. Families are very important. They need to talk.”
Backstrom said that during the question and answer sessions following recent screenings of the film, young people would stand up and “just start bawling, because it hits home.”
He hopes that every junior and senior high school student in the country sees the film.
Since the movie premiered at the Cannes Film Festival this year, it won the Monaco International Award for Social Relevance and has been released to 100 million homes in the U.S. and Europe through pay-for-view. Danner hopes it starts a conversation, and the producers have prepared an educational cut of the movie to distribute to schools across the nation.
“This was a very difficult movie to make,” Danner said. “My own son (11 at the time) was shaken by the story and begged me to change the ending of the movie because it was so hard to watch. I told him I had to tell the story. It’s about raising awareness.”
This week’s screening at the Edgemar Center will offer a question and answer session with Danner and cast members.
“It’s a provocative film and I wanted it to be powerful,” Danner said. “As a society, we need to talk with our children, because they need our help.”
Tickets for the screening are available at edgemarcenter.org.