In response to the 1999 Columbine shootings, author and playwright John Buffalo Mailer (In the Heights) wrote Hello Herman. The play had just started rehearsals in New York City when the events of September 11, 2001 shook America, and Mailer — thinking the play would be “a period piece” — wondered if anyone would care. Fast forward to the Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook massacres (and the seemingly endless list of school shootings); clearly the problem isn’t going away. Neither do we as a country have a handle on what exactly is behind these violent outbursts. No matter which group or individual throws blame at the availability of guns, psychopathic individuals (and a poor mental health system), parenting or the lack thereof, violent video games, heavy metal music, satanic influences or lack of religion, we’re finally beginning to understand the math behind the problem. The violence output can’t possibly be the sum of only one part; rather, there are many.
But what difference has this realization made? What real solutions or steps toward solution have we made? Each time a mass killing occurs we wring our hands, share our feelings in public and private, and then pretty much go right back to what we were doing until the next tragedy occurs. We can’t hide from it any longer. School violence is a subject that needs to stay in the collective consciousness until we’re able to effect change, and with Hello Herman, director Michelle Danner (How to Go Out on a Date in Queens) aims to keep the national discourse going. After having directed Mailer’s stage production and like the rest of us, observed the course school violence has followed, Danner wanted to continue the conversation.
The titular Herman (Garrett Backstrom) isn’t a psychopath, he’s a nerdy, quiet, bullied teenager for whom all the factors multiply, pushing him over the edge. All Herman’s boxes are ticked: Parents divorced—traumatized as a young boy when his father left, haunted by his sister’s death; ignored by his mother, and failed by his teachers, Herman is picked on, beat up, and made fun of; his attraction to a flirty girl is cruelly exploited. After crappy days at school, Herman spends his free time either playing or creating video games, and a gun isn’t difficult to get.
The film opens with a bloodless accounting of Herman wiping out forty-two people in his school gymnasium, thirty-nine of them his fellow students. Before his arrest, Herman manages to contact a well-known journalist with whom Herman thinks he has a connection, and who he wants to tell his story. The Walking Dead’s Norman Reedus is excellent as the unfortunately named Lax Morales, who hosts a popular web series/talk show and has a dark past. Through flashbacks, we’re given the backstory for both Herman and Lax—perhaps more accessible as acts of a play than with some of the jarring time-jumps we’re put through. While I commend the conversation Danner and Mailer want to keep at the table, there are over-the-top caricatures that add nothing but distraction: the Ann Coulter-ish Republican Senator (Christine Dunford), Rob Estes (Necessary Roughness, 90210) as a Fox News-type sensationalist reporter who over-mugs his way through every scene, and a reporter (Martha Higareda) who has a past with Lax—but the less said about the peripheral actors, the better.
Despite stylistic choices that leave the viewer unclear that the storyline is meant to be set slightly in the future, a thoughtful, seasoned Reedus helps ground the film. Lax begins a series of filmed prison interviews that start off with Herman embracing his inner-evil; he’s angry and boastful, convinced because of a violent act Lax once committed that he and his interviewer are the same. The intimate exchanges between reporter and subject, man and boy… human being to human being take us inside these two broken people; this is where Danner’s direction is at its best. I wish I could cut away the rest. While Lax attempts to help the teenager comprehend the difference between them and the horror of what Herman did—taken away other peoples’ sons and daughters—Lax comes to his own point of understanding, if not compassion.
I had a short phone interview with Danner and asked if that was her intent (as it was Mailer’s, when he wrote Herman); Danner replied that she didn’t attempt to gain sympathy for Herman, just to “humanize him.” She chose Backstrom, whose performance as Herman is both chilling and sympathetic, from over 100 actors who auditioned because of how he walked into the door. Danner, whose own family has experienced bullying, also wisely eschews actually showing blood or violence, (other than a quick bathroom scene where Herman is ambushed by a couple of students), because she didn’t want that to be the film’s focus. The director hopes Hello Herman will spur people to think about the “connection” we all want and need. As Lax observes toward the end of the film, (this is) “what happens when you devalue human life.”
Hello Herman premiered at the 2012 Hollywood Film Festival, and is now available on DVD and iTunes; the DVD includes an educational cut for schools—where it would be best suited for screenings. The film is partnered with No Bull, an organization that challenges teens to speak out against bullying by making their own videos and taking part in their worldwide contest, complete with awards show.