Zero Day

Robin Clifford 
Zero Day
Laura Clifford 
'Have you ever felt such glory
Maybe in a lost memory
I never want to come back here again
And we really wanna be someone
Everybody said we were something'  

                                                                                                                                            'Volcano' by Benji Cossa
High school students Andre (Andre Keuck) and Cal (Cal Robertson) are, to all appearances, normal, well-adjusted teenagers. But, as their video cameras begin to record the boys’ visual diary we learn that they aren’t interested in cars and girls. Their agenda is far different as the self-proclaimed “Army of Two” make plans to leave an indelible mark on their unsuspecting town in “Zero Day.”

Everybody and their brother has been harping on the slew of films that are being released that either reference or recreate aspects of the 1999 student massacre in Columbine, Colorado. Michael Moore won Oscar kudos for his documentary of American violence that used the killing spree as a springboard to discuss the “bigger issue.” Helmer Gus Van Sant won best film and director awards at Cannes earlier this year for his “Elephant,” which covered the last day in the life of a number of high school students, Rashomon-style, as killers Alex and Eric put their deadly plans in motion. Little indie film, “Home Room,” shows the aftermath and affect on the survivors of such random violence.

“Zero Day” is the brainchild of first time feature director Ben Coccio and the newcomer utilizes the reality based techniques employed in the indie mega-hit “The Blair Witch Project.” But that is where the comparison should end. Coccio puts a very controlled hand upon his characters’ cameras as Andre and Cal use video technology to chronicle the formation of their plan and preparation for their attack on Zero Day, the first day when the temperature reaches zero degrees. Their logic is that such a random event cannot be guessed upon and this will help hide their deadly plans.

“Zero Day” takes this footage and builds a story that does not attempt to explain why such events as Columbine happen. Instead the filmmaker shows us how two seemingly normal teens can plan such a heinous event without apparent reason. Since Coccio isn’t looking to explain things the film becomes an almost academic chronicle that spans months as Andre and Cal are taught to shoot guns, surf the internet to learn how to make pipe bombs and, even, use the net to purchase an assault rifle. They spend their days strategizing their plans and, when the temperature dips to the target degree, the plan is called off because on of the boys is sick. Going against their own logic of "random act" they reschedule the event to May 1st.

When the designated day finally draws near, the pair break into a cousin’s locked gun cabinet and take a small arsenal of weapons and ammunition. Thus supplied, the next morning they head to school, leave the camera running as they calmly set their murderous plan into motion. Sticking to the real events at Columbine, the actual massacre is seen only via the fuzzy lens of school surveillance camera where their righteous attitude is replaced by a God-like arrogance as they meter out death on a random basis. The grainy footage punctuates the documentary style that the filmmaker adopted throughout “Zero Day.”

Helmer Coccio scoured the Connecticut high school system in search of the unknowns to play the roles of the two teens. Andre Keuck and Calvin Robertson do a pretty fair job in giving life to their characters. The director also convinced the stars’ real life parents to appear as the boys’ parents in the film. This made for some of the interactions between mom and day and their offspring to ring very true.

“Zero Day” is a low budget little film that fascinates as you watch the two “protagonists” prepare for their assault. The matter-of-fact way this is done, and with its inevitable conclusion, helps to make this a tension building tale that keeps a knot in the stomach. Plaudits to Ben Coccio and his young stars for a job well done. I give it a B.

Andre Kriegman (Andre Keuck) and Cal Gabriel (Calvin Robertson) are best friends making a joint video diary.  While both boys seem to enjoy good family relationships, neither seems to have any other friends at school, although Andre is suspicious of Cal's regard for Rachel (Rachel Benichak).  These seemingly normal kids are producing videos with shocking content, though - the preparation for and rationalization of their upcoming violent attack on their high school which they have dubbed "Zero Day."

This feature film debut was cowritten (with brother Chris), directed and recorded by Ben Coccio before anyone had heard of Gus Van Sant's "Elephant."  While that film was technically glorious, it's final massacre evoked no emotion.  Coccio's inexpensive "Blair Witch/Interview with the Assassin" approach sometimes cheats with its own formula, but his film's school shootings pack more punch.   Interestingly enough, it is in letting us get to know the assailants, not the victims, that Coccio makes us grieve.

The kids introduce themselves, shooting themselves in front of their high school in what they refer to as 'our town,' an ironic reference to Thorton Wilder's wholesome bit of death-shrouded Americana.  Andre celebrates his eighteenth birthday by blowing up fireworks, telling the camera 'this is just ceremonial' and that the serious explosions will come later.  Andre's dad (the actor's real father, Gerhard Keuck) tells him 'life isn't always fair' with a heavy German accent.  They appear to have a good relationship, open and joking.  The only fly in the ointment is that the video camera Andre's been given isn't the one he wanted, even after he told his folks about a specific model.  Cal's family (also featuring the actor's real parents, Pam and Steve) is also a big, happy clan - an all-American crew.

But these kids are serious.  Cruising the Internet, the boys demonstrate their own version of the Anarchists' Cookbook as they build bombs.  Andre's cousin Chris (cowriter Chris Coccio) becomes an unwitting accomplice when he teaches the boys how to target shoot and neglects to hide his hiding place for the key to his closeted weapons arsenal.  Their tapes begin dated for historical purposes and Andre's procured a safety deposit box to store all but the last.  He's thought about their analysis in the media as well, selecting Peter Jennings, Dan Rather and Wolf Blitzer for access to their tapes after their death.  The self-proclaimed Army of Two destroy their video games, DVDs and CDs in a bonfire to thwart psychological profiling.

Zero day, they explain, is so named because they intend to attack on the first day that starts off at zero degrees, but an amusing anecdote is told as to why that was sidelined and the boys choose May 1 instead.  Much to Andre's chagrin, Cal goes to the prom on April 29th with Rachel. Two days later, after making sure the camera is correctly positioned on their car's dash to capture their entry into the school, the boys go on their rampage.  Coccio ingeniously has Andre make a 911 call to proclaim their intent, then leave his cell phone on, so that the unfolding events are shown via the school's security tapes and narrated by the 911 operator (Samantha Philips).

The video diary conceit has the usual spate of problems.  These amateurs never get flaccid footage, even accounting for in-camera editing.  A tape from inside Cal's prom limo isn't defined as non-diary footage, but that of another prom-goer, although its content is important, defining Cal as a little known guy who is the friend of someone the other teens think is 'psycho.'  The duo contradict themselves constantly - burning their belongings, but showing them to the camera, using code words for explosives on camera while they clearly are making them, etc.  Andre's father purportedly tapes him driving home from work on prom night to provide some ironic references to a future that won't be coming, but the obvious manipulation is distracting. The counter on the security tapes continues to tick down during dissolves.

Coccio's work with his actors, however, is at least as good if not better than Van Sant's. Andre Keuck gives a strong performance as the alienated teen.  He's confident giving reasons for the Army of Two's vendetta, even while trying to assure his parents that there are no reasons.  He makes scary sense describing the idiocy of being termed a 'faggot' for the offense of wearing a shirt from J.C. Penney.  Keuck is also subtle in several scenes when a homosexual longing for Cal is implied.  Calvin Robertson is the quieter of the two, the one being led even though they distinctly state there is no leader.  He has a beautifully delivered soliloquy where he explains that he and Andre never agreed to go and shoot the school, that the understanding was just there between them, yet when Andre forcefully states that he could never have acted with anyone other than Cal, Robertson's returned sentiment is nicely nuanced, letting us know he is less committed.

"Zero Day" bears uncanny resemblances to "Elephant" with its implied homosexuality, a Nazi poem delivered by one boy and the odd use of the word 'fun' to describe the upcoming horror, but unlike Van Sant, Coccio openly explores motivation.  His writing can be elegant, such as when Andre says that although their actions will seem to be at cross purposes with his words, that 'We're trying to show people what they should value.  Respect and value your fellow man.' Of course, there's also vengeance and ego involved, as demonstrated by Andre's anger over insults and words about making their mark.  Their victims are symbolized during the excitingly shot target practice sequence, where a stuffed Bambi toy is used as a target.

Coccio tacks on an unnecessary coda, where a group of survivors burn down the memorial markers noting Andre and Cal amidst those they shot down, but his choice of identifying with the perpetrators was an unusual gambit that paid off.  As the 911 operator repeats 'I can get you out of this, just pick up the phone,' we realize that the lives of the shooters were as wasted as those of their victims.


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