Reviewers have called The Rainbow Experiment (Christina Kallas, 2018) “Shakespearean”, and for good reason. Like Shakespeare’s plays, Kallas’s film reaches the universal through the specific: through a myriad of believable, individuated stories, the desires and, even more, the tawdry failures of those who come together on one horrific day that starts with a classroom chemical explosion and ends with a shooting.
Its intersecting narratives examine the lives of teachers, administrators, parents and students of many hues, ethnicities, and gender preferences, tearing at each other inside (and outside) a New York City high school. The miracle is that rather than cluttering the narrative, the backstories place this school saga firmly within its densely urban setting. The unfolding revelation that students and, indirectly, their parents, and not the beleaguered science teacher, caused the devastating explosion that mortally wounded one student provides the plotline, presented in flashbacks, cross cuts, and split screens.
Narrated by the ghostly figure of the comatose victim himself, visible almost only to the audience, The Rainbow Experiment leads to a too familiar school shooting. But in a bold directorial move, the film is not about the shooting; two out-of-control parents, one heavily drinking and one drunk on grief, wave guns in the principal’s office and, in the confusion, shoot each other. The implication is that gun violence has become so familiar that it almost fades into the background of collective despair. In Kallas’s films, however, things simultaneously are and are not what they seem. Distinctive among female directors for her non-linear narratives and multiple protagonists, Kallas’s worldview echoes that of David Lynch. Like Lynch, Kallas is concerned with the medium of film itself. In Kallas’s vision re-writing the story, as the unreliable narrator finally does, has a cathartic effect. The Rainbow Experiment posits that life, like a movie plot, is determined by choices that can be reversed. The piercing of surface reality is imbedded in the cinematic techniques, editing, and narrative. Split screens point to reality as a function of the mind or spirit. Doors provide portals to an alternate world or signify moments of choice or realization that dictate – but can also revise – the dark scripts we are all too often writing.