My biggest takeaway from Christina Kallas’ The Rainbow Experiment is that teachers really don’t get paid enough in this country. Think about new technologies, entitled parents, emotionally confused kids with no outlet, and dwindling budgets forcing them to spend out-of-pocket for resources all while a guillotine hangs above their necks if grade thresholds aren’t met. Suddenly those idealistic educators hoping to change the world find themselves caught in a futile game wherein job security becomes paramount at the children’s expense. Everyone’s back is pressed against the wall as a ticking time bomb threatens to explode … and I’m not even talking about the possibility of someone walking in with a loaded arsenal and grudge to bear. Has today’s stress increased or are we simply too close to it?
Look at the kids too because they have it just as bad. Bullying is no longer isolated to rumors behind your back or altercations egged on by those you thought were your friends. Now there’s social media wherein cruelty reigns via anonymity. There’s also a larger awareness of psychological trauma, gender/sexual fluidity, and easily accessible drugs — each as detrimental to one’s health as they are empowering. Whether or not stress is relative (kids face it too with GPA, college, and a future dictated by rising populations augmented by automation and thus decimated by it occupationally), what about intent? Independence and maturity factor in much younger these days and with both comes anger, frustration, and action. Payback can prove much more volatile than a mere verbal disruption earning detention.
We therefore live in an era of unpredictability, sentiments I believe to be crucial to Kallas’ message about how no single factor can be held as more important to potential tragedy than the next. I’m not sure how relevant that is in this specific case considering the perpetrator(s) is obvious (whoever put or assisted in putting flammable chemicals in beakers meant for an innocent chemistry lesson with fire), yet I can relate to her point. Diminishing what the guilty party did in order to conflate his/her recklessness with tiny butterfly wing flaps on the periphery is objectively a dangerous stance to take, but everything happening before and after this incident (wherein a child is burned bad enough to be placed in a medically-induced coma) does possess grave possibilities.
This fact is proven by a sprawling ensemble of characters young and old converging upon a school under investigation for the accident that sent Matty Fairchild (Connor Siemer) to the hospital. He might be the victim — far-removed physically from everyone else despite remaining as a catalyst for tough questions — but he’s also inexplicably our fourth wall-breaking guide anyway. We need him here too because he’s as much an unreliable witness as the rest. I say unreliable because someone onscreen knows the truth. Some people know partial truths they’re as yet unaware pertain to the fire while others are intentionally hiding details as a means of self-preservation. Add another layer of characters with their own personal, tangentially related secrets and an escalation in chaos is all but assured.
You have the chemistry teacher (Nina Mehta’s Ms. Dhawan) and the school’s principal (Patrick Bonck’s Mr. Williamson) to blame on a practical level. They are the two who were responsible for Matty’s and his classmates’ well-being at the time of the incident and thus should be held accountable at least as far as explaining what occurred and how they reacted. What about Matty, JC (Richard Liriano), Lawrence (Isaiah Blake), Toni (Christine McLaughlin) and the other kids who created the rambunctious scene previous to the fireball, though? How much should we hold them accountable for rattling Ms. Dhawan and thus adding to the uncertainty? What about drugs and therefore their dealer (Christian Coulson’s cafeteria employee Adam)? How about the involuntary evaluations happening behind the teachers’ backs to heighten tension?
There are the family members arriving to stir the pot: Matty’s distraught father harboring deep regret and therefore powerful guilt (Swann Gruen’s Ross), Toni’s angry drunk of a dad with a chip on his shoulder (Kevin Kane’s David), Adam’s eccentric older brother Nicky (Stratos Tzortzoglou), and Williamson’s sacred and depressed wife Amy (Margaret Rose Champagne). There are the authority figures trying to do their jobs: the school psychologist (Francis Benhamou), school security guard (Douglas Rizzo Johnson), and outside investigators (Laura Pruden and Chris Veteri). And let’s not forget a handgun, a misguided email, rumors of domestic abuse, attempted suicide, and so much more. Kallas delivers everything via flashbacks, repetition, split-screen, and a quasi-narrator projected as a vision of faith, hope, and perhaps even death by the very end.
It’s a wild ride that has us eavesdropping on private conversations and makeshift interrogations. We often watch what happens before hearing those involved spin lies to their advantage and we speculate on assumptions without knowing the details necessary to explain how things aren’t quite as they appear. It can get unwieldy at times, but having Kallas and her Writers Improv Studio (“focused on the art of improvisation as a method for writing that blends it with emotional structure theory”) at the helm means we can see purpose in the elaborate machinations. These filmmakers set a goal (to show the complexity of responsibility and the snowball effect of mistakes), manufactured a situation, and seemingly threw hundreds of possibilities for blame and ownership at the wall to see what stuck.
Apparently a lot did because I’ve only mentioned about two-thirds of the characters crucial to this plot. How they interact can become redundant (the number of stolen kisses and romantic advances that go nowhere is large), but having everything turned up to eleven as far as hyperbolic cause and effect does let contrivances serve a purpose towards providing worst case scenarios that are able to ensure human nature (good or bad) will be revealed. Morality therefore co-exists with opportunism, empathy with pure rage. There are spiritual moments (a couple people can see Matty like us) and many emotional breakdowns when escape appears impossible. Besides a cop-out (second) ending, I have to admit I was invested in the tension this socially charged situation lent to otherwise universally routine conflict.
The Rainbow Experiment screens at the Buffalo International Film Festival on October 5.