Zero Day

Ben Coccio’s “Zero Day” will forever be paired with Gus van Sant’s “Elephant,” the higher-profile and slightly better film that was also released in 2003 and dealt with high school shootings. The pairs of films that coincidentally deal with similar subjects used to be far-fetched and escapist, like “Dante’s Peak” and “Volcano” in 1997, and “Armageddon” and “Deep Impact” in 1998. Now they’re about kids killing each other, and based on true stories. Yikes.

“Zero Day” makes an excellent companion piece to “Elephant.” Both use regular kids rather than actors, giving each film a distinctly realistic feel. But while “Elephant” was a fictionalized account of Columbine, “Zero Day” is about two boys’ Columbine copycat plan — a response to Columbine, rather than a recreation of it.

As such, “Zero Day” has an aura of suspense about it that couldn’t exist in a based-on-a-true-story film, since we know how those are going to end. The finale of “Zero Day” is not a foregone conclusion: They could be caught, or talked out of it, or or they could change their minds before their plan comes to fruition. Though our gut tells us it’s unlikely, we hope for a happy ending. If it goes the way we’re afraid it’s going to go, it’s going to be bad.

In an unnamed New York town live high school seniors Cal (Calvin Robertson) and Andre (Andre Keuck). They have been friends for an unspecified length of time, but when we meet them, they have already made elaborate plans to murder as much of their high school as possible. The date is not set, because to do so would increase their risk of being found out beforehand. Instead, they’ve decided to act the first day that the temperature falls to exactly zero degrees. They also have not issued manifestos or posted Web sites, for that is also how students get caught. When Cal, the meeker of the two, reads a militaristic poem at a local poetry reading, Andre is furious with him, fearing people will now be suspicious of them. They are nothing if not methodical.

Calling themselves the “army of two,” Cal and Andre record themselves in a video diary for several months, the tapes of which are stored in a safety deposit box to prevent them being found before Zero Day. This gives the film its most interesting conceit: The entire movie consists of footage shot by the actors themselves. I know of only two other films that have done this, “The Blair Witch Project” (1999) and a French film called “My Life on Ice” (2002), which has played at some American film festivals. The effect, as you can imagine (or as you know if you’ve seen either of those), is one of stark realism. The only thing about “Zero Day” that suggests it’s not actually a compilation of tapes left by two teenage assassins is the closing credits, where we see their real last names.

The acting is extraordinarily unforced and uncontrived. The boys speak in the guarded, irony-laced tones of teenage boys, stumble over lines (none of which seem like “lines,” of course) and behave completely naturally. Cal, more a follower than a leader, is glib and funny, though his charm has evidently not prevented him from being an outsider among his peers. Andre, more serious and vitriolic and clearly the mastermind, tells the camera that people shouldn’t bother looking for “reasons” why he and Cal did this. There are no reasons; it’s just what had to happen, he says. “You can’t cure somebody who has nothing wrong with him,” Cal adds.

That may be the most unsettling element of this troubling film, the idea that kids are capable of this sort of evil without any obvious provocation. Is it a product of our times? Teenagers throughout history have thought they were smarter than they were, of course — but today, they actually have the resources to help them enact their misguided beliefs.

Cal and Andre appear normal, yet they plan this monstrous attack. What’s scariest is that we believe it. We don’t think, “No kids that normal and relatively well-adjusted would do that!” We’ve seen the news, we know what people are capable of. Nothing surprises us anymore.

The film has an epilogue of sorts that doesn’t really work and that feels unnecessary. There’s a specific moment prior to it where the film ought to have ended for a much more powerful, haunting effect. Still, as it is, “Zero Day” is gripping, compelling work. It feels pulled from real life, and nowadays real life is the most frightening thing there is.

B+ (1 hr., 32 min.; R, a lot of harsh profanity, some vulgarity, some strong violence.)