Independent filmmaker Jay Craven's "The Year That Trembled" is an ambitious coming-of-age story set amid the turmoil that beset rural Ohio communities in the wake of the May 4, 1970, shootings at Kent State University, where 28 National Guardsmen fired some 80 rounds of live ammunition at student demonstrators, killing four and wounding nine. Antiwar sentiments were running high as the Vietnam War had spread to Cambodia the previous month.
Unfortunately, the scope of this project is beyond the abilities of Craven, who adapted his script from Scott Lax's novel. The large amount of archival material that Craven inserts too bluntly into his film is painful to watch for anyone who lived through the Vietnam era, but the overall effect is more depressing than moving. Craven might have had greater success in focusing on fewer people.
A popular teacher, Helen Kerrigan (Marin Hinkle) is fired for her antiwar activism among her students at a high school apparently not far from Kent State. (Throughout, the film's sense of geography is hazy.) When the Kent State shootings occur, Helen's law clerk husband, Charlie (Jonathan M. Woodward), is led to believe that a smug, obtuse, by-the-book attorney (Henry Gibson) will actually help defend the 25 demonstrators indicted for conspiracy — never mind that he sat on the school board that favored Helen's firing. Consequently, it's hardly surprising that the attorney backs off when Charlie comes up with evidence of Department of Justice meddling in the indictment.
Meanwhile, several of Helen's students, most notably Casey (Jonathan Brandis), who is enamored of her, are grappling with the specter of the draft by lottery, wondering what to do should their numbers come up. Judy (Meredith Monroe), the daughter of Helen's high school principal (Fred Willard), is among the student demonstrators facing indictment. One of Judy's fellow activists, the obnoxious, hotheaded and divisive Isaac (Jay R. Ferguson), is among those who set fire to the university's ROTC building.
There are several more key characters, but the problem is that virtually all of them are ill-defined and therefore unengaging. Judy is by far the most focused and realistic among them; would that the film had spent more time with her than with Helen, who does a lot of smiling and seems remarkably unconcerned about the loss of income her firing has caused. Among the men, Charlie is the most complex. Certainly, "The Year That Trembled" evokes the fear, anger and conflict that swept over the country at the time, but it doesn't offer sufficient fresh insights to justify doing so.
'The Year That Trembled'
MPAA rating: R for language and some drug use
Times guidelines: Complex adult themes
Jonathan Brandis ... Casey Pederson
Marin Hinkle ... Helen Kerrigan
Jonathan M. Woodward ... Charlie Kerrigan
Meredith Monroe ... Judy Woods
Jay R. Ferguson ... Isaac Hoskins
A Novel City Pictures and Kingdom County Productions presentation. Writer-director Jay Craven. Based on the novel by Scott Lax. Producers Tyler Davidson, Scott Lax. Executive producers Andrew Rayburn, Dennis Johnson. Cinematographers John Foster, Jeff Barklage. Editor Beatrice Sisul. Music Jeff Claus and Judy Hyman. Costumes Sarah Beers. Production designer Jim Gelarden. Set decorator Ken Kellers. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.
Exclusively at the Fairfax Cinemas, Beverly Blvd. at Fairfax Ave., (323) 655-4010.