Last week or so, my brother and I were discussing our shared Netflix queue. Next on our list was We Need to Talk About Kevin, a movie I added probably as long as two years ago. I probably read the description and found it interesting. But my brother thought it was a recent addition–after all, he heard about the film after a segment on an evening entertainment show called it the movie that “predicted” the Sandy Hook shooting.
That’s not entirely accurate. The similarities are obviously there, notable from the Netflix plot summary: “Eva’s relationship with her son, Kevin, has been difficult from the beginning. When the 15-year-old boy’s cruel streak erupts into violence, Eva wonders how much blame she deserves for his actions.” But the similarities aren’t so intense that they’re particularly eery, plus the story of an individual, possibly with mental illness, committing a mass act of violence isn’t new. Like I’ve said before, that’s one of the major tragedies of these things. They’re almost normal.
The film’s focus, though, is more on Eva than Kevin. From Kevin’s birth, he was a difficult child–though mostly only with Eva. His interactions with his father, Franklin, tend to be much more “normal” to the point that Franklin brushes off Eva’s concerns that something is wrong with Kevin, that he’s responsible for certain violent, cruel acts that take place over the course of his childhood and teenage years. I won’t spoil it, but some of the scenes, though they don’t actually depict violence or aren’t particularly graphic, are quite chilling in the way they build tension. And as we get to know Kevin throughout the film, we’re not surprised, though we are horrified.
The beginning is a little confusing, but you quickly figure out that the story is being told in flashbacks, starting with Eva and Franklin meeting all the way up to about two years after the shooting. It’s surprisingly effective storytelling, as we see Eva struggling with Kevin as a child juxtaposed with her struggling with the aftermath of his crimes, most notably reaction from the community, who blame her for Kevin–her house is doused with red paint, she’s harassed physically and verbally, etc.
Therefore, it manages to challenge the notion that a parent is to blame for his/her child’s actions, especially when one of Kevin’s surviving victims cheerfully approaches her in the street and makes nice yet sincere smalltalk with her, showing that he doesn’t blame her. Can Eva be blamed? Probably not, which has useful real-life applications. We see Eva make mistakes with Kevin, but we also see her trying really, really hard, to the point that by the time Kevin does start his violence–even in little things toward his younger sister–it’s pretty clear that Kevin is at fault. In fact, in many ways, Eva is one of his victims, too.
The cast is outstanding. First of all, the kids playing Kevin as a child at different ages are fantastic. But really, the whole movie hinges on Eva, played by Tilda Swinton, who is wonderful. John C. Reilly plays Franklin, and as much as I love him when he’s being ridiculous and as hilarious as I think he is, it’s refreshing to see him in a dramatic role again. It’s a role that’s very well-suited for him, too. For the most part, he’s a sweet, charming husband and father, but he’s wonderful in the serious scenes as things get darker, especially as–predictably–Kevin’s behavior causes tension in Eva and Franklin’s marriage.
We Need to Talk About Kevin is definitely an interesting drama, especially for somewhat unconventional storytelling and perspectives of children’s mental health, parenting, violence, and blame. I definitely recommend it.