What exactly is it that makes a kid go on a rampage and shoot up his school? A history of being bullied, exposure to violent video games, absentee parenting? For the teen gunman in Michelle Danner’s Hello Herman the answer is all of the above—not to mention a tragic incident in his own past for which he harbors an intense guilt. This cover-all-bases approach by Danner and screenwriter John Buffalo Mailer invites sympathy for young Herman Howards (Garrett Backstrom), painting him as a societal victim who craves a moment of power lacking from his otherwise intensely frustrating life. As such, it moves the film into vaguely edgy territory, especially when the narrative flashes back to episodes of intense bullying that align the viewer with Herman’s position of humiliation.
That identification is mirrored by that of the film’s other main character, muckraking video blogger Lax Morales (Norman Reedus), who improbably gets the inside scoop on Herman’s story and records a series of interviews with the killer from the prison where the latter is being held. Compounding the empathetic understanding is an incident in Lax’s own past in which, while going undercover as a member of the KKK for an investigative report, he was goaded into beating a black child with a bat. Linked to his interviewee by their mutual propensity for violence, the video blogger spends the film nurturing an increased understanding of the kid’s position, while simultaneously resisting the impulse to see too much of himself in the murderous teen.
But this alignment with Herman’s perspective, even as it never downplays the gravity of his crimes, which are depicted in intense, dreamlike detail, leads Hello Herman into a set of obvious conclusions. Thus the searching inquiry that Lax, like the film, seeks is jettisoned in favor of easy observations about the correspondences between the extreme graphicness of the kid’s favorite video games and the school shooting, rote deductions about bullying leading to revenge, and the well-rehearsed rundown of the ease with which a teenager can acquire an arsenal of weaponry. And because the film insists on the bluntest possible presentation of its message, these conclusions are spelled out as if they’re revelations.
Still, they’re preferable to the film’s political and media satire, which presents a Fox News-style program and a Republican senator calling for Herman to be given the death penalty in predictably hammy fashion. This attempt to broaden the discussion beyond the boy’s personal story is a failure chiefly because it has even less to say about the state of contemporary America than the scenes with the teen being interviewed. Still, this anything goes approach is at least consistent with Hello Herman’s slapdash narrative and aesthetic strategies, which finds the movie jumping back and forth in time, switching from the macro to the micro level and alternating news and video footage with highly stylized flashbacks of violent events. To the degree that this jumble mirrors the fractured perspective of the modern media landscape or the tortured consciousness of a bullied boy, it makes sense, but it seems far too indicative of the film’s own uncertainties and undercooked attempts at being simultaneously intriguingly open-ended and exhaustively, if superficially, inclusive.