A Manhattan high school dealing with a violent accident has a rougher day than might be expected in The Rainbow Experiment, Christina Kallas’ unconventional ensemble drama. Much more interested in its adult characters — parents, faculty, investigators and more — than it is in the students whose lives are upended, the pic is a round-robin of interactions that often have little or nothing to do with the teen left comatose by the mishap. While its quirky storytelling style draws viewers in, many will tire of the subplots long before it reaches the two-hour mark.
Matty Fairchild, who’s as white and bright and blonde as his name suggests, is the boy in question, who was badly burned during a chemistry experiment involving a Bunsen burner and chemicals that produce different colors of flame (the title’s “rainbow experiment”). He’s currently in a coma at a nearby hospital, but he’s also viewers’ guide to the action back at school: Connor Siemer plays the smart-ass spirit who pops up where he doesn’t belong and speaks directly to the camera, introducing characters who can’t see or hear him.
A year’s worth of soap opera, condensed to 130 minutes.
Those introductions are handy, given how many players the cast includes. A few of Matty’s classmates earn the film’s attention — Toni (Christine McLaughlin), the troubled girl he has a crush on; JC (Richard Liriano), the tough kid being abused by his father — but they’re far outnumbered by grown-ups who are thrown into panic mode by the day’s events.
Jess, the pinched-face principal (Patrick Bonck), feels the most heat, dealing directly with both parents and investigators from the Board of Education while trying to defend chem teacher Ms. Dhawan (Nina Mehta) from accusations of negligence. But when parents start arriving at the school (they’ve all been called for an afternoon briefing about the accident), most are also dealing with worries barely related to the accident. An alcoholic father goes off on a detective mission when he learns his kid is buying drugs; Matty’s dad mixes grief with self-pity over being too young for all this (he looks barely older than the actors playing students); a Greek man who is only tangentially related to the school picks locks to sneak in and start talking about theology.
“Tangentially” is the key word above. In twos and threes, actors perform what appear to be improv-workshop scenes, riffing about backstories and motivations the film can barely contain. A couple of castmembers aren’t quite as good at this as their costars, but Kallas and editor Natalie Reneau shape coherent scenes out of their performances. The bigger trouble is that these individual scenes could easily be drawn from a 15-hour TV serial — one in which we have time to care about which man the mild-mannered new substitute will go out with; whether the (closeted?) gay teacher will work up the nerve to ask the British cafeteria worker out; whether the principal’s estranged wife is going to kill herself on campus or make her way back home before she chokes down those pills she stole. Just when we think we’ve got a handle on the many competing mini-dramas, one character announces she’s late for an abortion and three others get stuck in an elevator. (The latter mishap is the work of the Evil Eye, says the Greek.)
Throughout, split screens and tricky editing effects emphasize the multilayered structure and hint that what we’re seeing isn’t necessarily the only way things could go. With this much happening, though, one version of everything is plenty.
Production company: Alliecine
Distributor: Gravitas Ventures
Cast: Connor Siemer, Richard Liriano, Patrick Bonck, Nina Mehta, Christine McLaughlin, Stratos Tzortzoglou, Lauren Sowa, Swann Gruen, Christian Coulson
Director-screenwriter: Christina Kallas
Producers: Christina Kallas, Allison Vanore
Executive producer: Donn Gobin
Director of photography: David Sharples
Editor: Natalie Reneau