Every day, more than 3000 high school students attempt suicide.
When Today Ends is the story of three of them.
The suicide crisis among young people is a mental-health epidemic, and one that many novels and movies – like television’s controversial 13 Reasons Why – have explored. Michael Leoni, who directed and wrote this film, takes a slightly different approach.
His movie is presented as found footage, discovered online and edited together, and tells the stories of a trio of teens through their own words. Sitting in their nice suburban bedrooms, they switch on their phones or cameras and share the happy details of their lives with an invisible audience of followers.
Except it soon becomes apparent that their lives are not as happy as we might have assumed. Yes, one girl is a straight-A student and the most popular kid on campus. One boy is a star athlete. None of them wants for anything.
But gradually, their YouTube posts and live streams are revealed for what they are – long, recorded, potential suicide notes.
As a sociological piece, When Today Ends is a bit flawed. Although Leoni’s intent is to show that even outwardly “perfect” people have problems, it would be helpful to have at least one of his main characters not be quite so well off, or attractive, or white. Depression knows no race, no boundaries.
Leoni also melodramatizes a bit. One character is savagely beaten by a parent. Another suffers a harrowing sexual assault by a gang of predators. It’s not just that the scenes are hard to watch – they should be – but they’re also unnecessary. You don’t need to be brutalized to consider suicide.
But the performances – developed over long sessions with his young actors – are terrific. Gavin Leatherwood is touchingly vulnerable and sweet as a transgender teen; Derick Breeze reveals the agony hidden under his cocky jock’s grin. Both young actors are remarkably, quietly brave in the places they’re willing to go.
And Jacqi Vene expertly explores perhaps the most complicated character of all – an almost annoyingly perky teen whose corny daily affirmations turn out to be really addressed to herself. Her character’s a living reminder of the fact that we often only see what we want to see – or others are willing to reveal.
Like just about every found-footage film, When Today Ends depends on a few far-fetched gimmicks (do most people film their feet as they walk around, or record themselves simply going down hallways?) A little judicious editing could have helped tighten the pace, too.
But its young characters look and sound like genuine teenagers. And the issue the film confronts is all too frighteningly real.