American Morning

By Robbie Bryan | Drama
A teacher deals with guilt and depression after surviving a school shooting.

Connor Mathis was an elementary school music teacher in a small town. But two years ago, a lone gunman forced his way into his school and killed 27 children with an assault rifle.

Since then, Connor quit teaching and now lives with his father. Dealing with guilt and depression, he's haunted by the memories of what happened that day -- and increasingly enraged by the inaction of the world around him. Determined to change something, even at great cost to himself, and desperate to relieve his guilt, Connor resolves to take matters into his own hands.

Directed by Robbie Bryan from a script written by lead actor Stephen Dexter, this thought-provoking short film takes full advantage of its 25-minute runtime, taking on the issue of mass shootings and gun violence with emotional depth. Toggling between Connor's past and present and making connections between the two, it takes the unusual approach of examining the aftermath of such traumatic violent events and has a willingness to be honest about the helplessness, anger and rage they provoke.

We see Connor in the present as a broken man, grieving, isolated and alone. His present is rendered in a drab black-and-white: a world rendered joyless and depressing. But we also see the day that changed his life and his very self, shot in bright color and an active, mobile camera. As a teacher, Connor is engaged, warm and caring; he's profoundly alive, and as an actor, Dexter is compellingly connected to the young performers who play his students.

But all that changes when the first gunshots are heard. The school shooting itself is portrayed with a distressing immediacy that's all the more potent for its focus on the children's fear of the gunman and physical violence itself, neither of which we see. Instead, we see the looks of terror on the faces of Connor's students, reminding us who the innocent targets are. It's those innocent faces that Connor has in mind in the following years when he embarks on a course of action that is drastic and desperate -- and as shocking as the violence that changed his own life. But in a series of warm-hearted encounters leading up to the end, he's reminded of the fundamental love and innocence around him -- which may or may not soften his resolve for revenge.

Powerful and compelling, "American Morning" ends on a cliffhanger, with a blank that can perhaps is filled in by the viewer's feelings about innate human nature and redemption. There have been a spate of short and feature films about school shootings, especially as their prevalence rises, but this narrative takes considerable time and effort to tackle one survivor's aftermath. We may or may not agree with Connor's ideas and opinions, but we can't deny the way that trauma, guns and rage become intertwined, in a possibly deadly combination. There are no easy answers or emotions at the end of the story, but there is an invitation to reflect and act.

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