Writer-director Aric Avelino says the idea for his debut film, American Gun, came from an interview with a police officer who was at the scene of the Columbine high-school shootings, which got Avelino thinking about what happens to people on the periphery of gun violence. So he imagined a few: an Oregon school shooter's mother (played by Marcia Gay Harden), a Detroit principal (Forest Whitaker), a Virginia gun-shop owner (Donald Sutherland), and their closest friends and family. Give Avelino credit for ambition, but damn him for presumption. American Gun is a well-meaning, well-acted little indie drama with a polished look (straight out of the Steven Soderbergh "Color-Code Your Way To Success" cinematography school), but when thinking about how his characters might feel about violence, Avelino's imagination stalled at "I bet they'd be real sad."


Avelino sprinkles in a few thoughtful details, like when Harden finds a memorial on her lawn for the kids her son killed. Unfortunately, Avelino lets the scene escalate, with Harden yanking up the memorial and screaming at her neighbors, while they scream back about what a bad mother she is. And that's pretty much the movie's pattern. Everyone in American Gun is defined by their character arc, which is front and center in every scene. Harden needs to move on for the sake of her other son, but the community won't let her. Whitaker's commitment to his thuggish inner-city students distracts him from troubles at home. A morose cop (played by Tony Goldwyn) has to answer for his inaction on the day that Harden's son went ballistic. It's like somebody dropped a camera in the middle of a screenwriting workshop.

The Sutherland segments are the most bothersome, because they never really reach a resolution, and because they're betrayed by Avelino's uni-faceted approach. Sutherland's granddaughter, played by Linda Cardellini, is a University Of Virginia student bummed out about the recent sexual assault of her best friend. But she's even more bummed about being pressured by her family to work with her grandfather in some Dixie backwater. Yes, Charlottesville, VA—home of one of America's most prestigious public universities, situated in one of the richest counties in the country—is, to Avelino, just another hick town. That's what happens when a director makes a movie based on what he imagines to be true, instead of what's actually so.