Director: Vincent Pereira
A Better Place is the debut film of Vincent Pereira—and thus far, the only film he has ever made. In the 1990’s, bouncing off the success of Kevin Smith’s film Clerks, View Askew Productions turned out several indie films directed by other talents within their social circle. This included a largely unknown [if not forgotten] gem called A Better Place. By far my favorite of the View Askew “non-Smith” films, A Better Place is a film that pushed me in directions no other films in my cultural diet had allowed. A Better Place made me a better film watcher and a better filmmaker. The gravity of the film’s social through-line and ultimately the film’s social value vastly outweighs its entertainment value. Therefore, this article will be transparent about the plot and character movements and as a result will contain spoilers.
A Better Place is a story about alienation, teen violence in America, and troubled youth. Although these topics are heavily tackled nowadays, especially in documentary form, in the mid-1990’s they were still considered taboo. Many Americans were likely unaware of how big the problem of teen violence was. Pereira made his film a few years before Columbine and many years before Sandy Hook and other more recent school massacres. Pereira is a filmmaker who saw a growing problem and tackled it head-on.
A Better Place is about a high schooler named Barret who has come to New Jersey with his mother. The two-person family is in pursuit of a new life after the unexpected death of Barret’s father. Immediately, Barret finds it difficult to connect with a spiteful community: students that seem to hate one-another, adults that seem to hate the younger people in town and so forth. There’s even a scene where Barret and another teenager, Ryan, are hiking in the woods off Whipporwill Valley Road when an old man kicks them out. This Middletown/Atlantic Highlands inspired town is a place of hatred and vitriol. The only people that are willing to make a connection with Barret is a loner named Ryan and two cliquish outcasts named Augustine and Eddie.
A Better Place is a violent film. Vincent Pereira does not hold back with his depiction of American youth and their violent interactions with one-another. Although technically a teen movie, nowhere will you find a happy ending love story, or a jock getting an embarrassing comeuppance. Instead, Pereira takes on mental illness and the tragedy that results. Todd, the bully-jock character, gets his brains blown out. As for the old man that kicked Barret and Ryan out of the woods? Ryan kills him with a rock. On top of Ryan’s violence, there are also many other characters that are constantly getting into violent encounters with one-another. This is Pereira’s depiction of reality for American teenagers. Nowhere in Pereira’s teen-America will anyone break into song or have innocent laughs, fuck a pie or place bets on who will get laid on prom night.
Pereira is a director that cares deeply about film aesthetics, but will happily sacrifice technical aesthetics in favor of story and character development. At one specific instance, Pereira chooses to retain a totally out of focus shot, simply because the shot supports the story—even though most other filmmakers would instinctively omit it. For all the things that may have gone wrong for his low-budget affair, quite a few things worked in Pereira’s favor.
There is an interesting aspect to the locations and the general look of the film. Although the exteriors are brightly lit, blue sky, green trees, breezy beaches—the interiors are windowless prisons. Whether the characters are in a classroom, bedroom, living room of school lunchroom: the windows are small, often placed high-up in such a way that seems to insinuate a jail-like atmosphere. Other indications of this recurring visual theme emerge with characters constantly filmed against walls: whether it be metal lockers or brick, graffiti plagued walls.
The contrast between the bright blue sky and the violence taking place on the ground is jarring. Such topics would typically be tackled in scenes overcast by rainy clouds or other nefarious weather conditions. Though Pereira has said that this was a result of an unusually bright summer, a year in which New Jersey had a dry-spell, the conditions proved to be an asset to the film’s overall aesthetic.
At the climax of the story, Ryan forces Barret into the woods as he goes on a hunt for Todd. They follow Todd as he’s hiking the woods. Ryan proceeds to assault him and the violence is poignant and jarring as Todd picks his freshly knocked out teeth out of the dirt. At the same time, we feel for Ryan’s pain as he rationalizes to Barret that his need to execute Todd is more than just revenge against the bully of the school: “You think this is about revenge? This is the culmination of everything I believe in, everything I have ever believed. I am going to make this world a better place than it was….” and perhaps that is one of the key rationales that would come forth in future school shootings: bullied kids that want to live in a better world but couldn’t find a proper mechanism to make it happen. The sad part is that we all know what happens after a person is killed: the world is worse off than it was before.
During Todd‘s execution scene, a butterfly lands on his back just prior to him getting shot dead. This was an accident and it wasn’t a case where it happened once and they used the take. According to Pereira, the butterfly landed on the actor’s back twice. In situations like this, clearly the butterfly was meant to be a part of the scene. What meaning can be derived from this moment is up for interpretation.
I first saw A Better Place when it was released on DVD at the turn of the century. I had acquired a copy of the film shortly after returning to the states from a stint at film school. One of many indie-films I acquired then, I felt I needed to immerse myself into independent cinema to undo much of the damage film school instilled on me. I was so blown away by A Better Place that I loaned it out to a friend who insisted that he “loved independent cinema”. The next day he threw the DVD at me and said: “Don’t ever loan me such rubbish”. It was then and because of this film that I realized my diet of films had to be substantially different than the mainstream affairs most non-filmmakers prefer. A Better Place, and the reaction of my friends to this movie, made me a better filmmaker by default. Most people want to use film to escape reality, but a true film connoisseur will embrace the films that depict the hard-hitting truths of the reality that we all face. A Better Place is not a happy film, and it is not entertainment—but it’s an excellent film with enormous social value. Vincent Pereira needs to make a follow-up. Desperately. Only then will cinema be in a better place.
You can pick-up A Better Place on DVD via Amazon.