Shooting in Vain

High school student Maxfield (Sebastian Gregory) is a photographer with the soul of a tormented artist. He’s misunderstood and underappreciated by the art establishment, which includes his pompous and condescending high school photography teacher. To his peers, he’s the perpetual outsider who refuses to fit in. A transfer student who arrived in his senior year, he’s somewhat of an iceberg in that he conceals a great deal more about his past than he reveals. We eventually meet his soon to be girlfriend Raine (Diana Hopper), who provides a bit of stability in his life that otherwise seems to teeter on the brink of oblivion. Socially awkward, Max gets talked into attending a party by Raine, who playfully browbeats him into spending some time among others. We see Max try his hand at mixing with the crowd, and at first, it’s like oil and water, but he seems to come around.

“…a photographer with the soul of a tormented artist…misunderstood and underappreciated by the art establishment…”

Watching him try to speak with people of his own age is a little like seeing a person who must relearn how to communicate with others. It’s a bit painful to watch and raises questions about what is at the root of his standoffishness. Is it strictly social awkwardness? It’s a conundrum that probably can’t be easily resolved. As we learn more about him and Raine, we begin to see the contradictions and misrepresentations that are part of his backstory. One of Raine’s friends privately asks her if Max is “super creative, or super creepy,” which seems to be a widely held question among her friend’s social clique. We never feel that Max is creepy. Even as we see his past in sometimes fragmented sequences that raise questions about his interpretation of reality, we never doubt his sincerity.

Shooting in Vain is a portrait of an individual who is difficult to pin down, not because he’s a self-aggrandizing liar — we’ve seen some world-class examples of that in recent times — but one who acknowledges that most of us are less than honest with ourselves, and therefore unlikely to tell others the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. His memory is clouded with snippets of bygone events that continue to haunt him years after the fact. And we sense that his misrepresentations and avoidances of discussing his past are tactics he employs to shield himself from emotional pain that is present in his every waking hour.

“…an individual who tries mightily to adjust to others’ expectations of him while staying true to himself.”

The film’s title might lead you to believe that this is a story about addicts and their compulsion to feed angry substance abuse habits, but it’s far from that. Drugs do ultimately play a role in the story, and it’s a small but devastating facet of the entire film. Instead, we focus on an individual who tries mightily to adjust to others’ expectations of him while staying true to himself.

Max is an admirer of artist Maxfield Parrish, with whom he seems to share not only a name but a romantic worldview. Conversely, the bookish Max is also fascinated with William Burroughs, who sees the world through a radically different lens from that of Parrish. Max is taken with the author’s book Naked Lunch because it shows the tenuousness of the line between illusion and reality, and it’s a line that we must imagine that he straddles each day. Ever struggling to keep his balance, he takes an ill-advised and dramatic step toward expanding his experiential horizons, and the story takes a tragic turn.

We come away from this not with a sense of jubilation, exactly, but more like the relief, you’d feel after surviving an ordeal. We see an individual who has strived to contain a world of grief, and who has come out the other side basically intact, but if not with a sense of victory, at least with a ray of hope for the future.

Shooting in Vain (2018) Directed by Jared Januschka. Written by D.H. Nelson. Starring Isabel Lucas, Diana Hopper, Alexandra Park, Sebastian Gregory, Michael L. McNulty, Maria Maestas McCann, Ryan Shoos, Colleen Kelly.

7.5 out of 10

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