Michael Leoni’s When Today Ends is an anti-suicide after-school special-style film told through the front-facing lenses of generation Z’s digital, vlog-accustomed eyes.
Four teenagers record themselves and their reasons for committing suicide for the hashtag #whentodayends: Jenna (Jacqi Vene) is the depressed, supposed-to-be-perfect overachiever; Nicole (Gavin Leatherwood) is the closet-transgender student with oppressive parents; James (Derick Breezee) is the bullied athlete; and Megan (Angel Guadalupe), well, she doesn’t get a whole lot of characterization. Each of them are cyber-bullied to some extent. They’re lonely beyond all reckoning. Leoni’s choice to use modern media as the found-footage basis for Today is interesting and, on both technical and aesthetic levels, successful. The stories told, though, feel well-intentioned but provocative in the wrong ways.
For instance: The film opens with Megan shooting herself in the head in a high-school bathroom stall. The camera lingers on her as she sits down on the floor, pulls out the gun, puts it in her mouth, takes it out, closes the door and then … bang. This is notably contrary to Action Alliance’s recommendations for depicting suicide in film, recommendations I was unaware of prior to watching this film but searched out because the content rubbed me the wrong way. It’s a shocking and effective way to open a film but not the most sensitive way to open one ostensibly geared toward teenagers who may have suicidal ideations.
Each character has his or her own vlog style. Again, it’s technically engaging. But it’s all a buildup to their suicides. Like their different vlog styles, each of them also graphically succeeds in killing themselves in a unique way. We get a lot of different reasons why each teenager commits suicide but very little of their lives beyond their sadness and pain. Not a single one chooses to live in spite of it and few really have reasons to go on living.
There’s little during Today‘s running time that tackles why these individuals, in their situations, should not commit suicide beyond the fact that suicide is inherently a tragedy. That’s not to say the film suggests suicide is the right course for these characters, only that, through the structure of the film and its stories, it’s the only possible outcome toward which the film seems to build. Every story beat exists to give each teen a reason to go through with suicide rather than create conflict in their ultimate choices. With three ongoing plots told, their stories are threadbare.
This would probably be less glaring if the climax were not a prolonged sequence depicting their graphic suicides. Self-inflicted gunshots, leaping from buildings, hanging. Today‘s final act shifts the film from shallow but good-hearted to uncomfortable and exploitative. There are many, many reasons why something as tragic as suicide can happen. Action Alliance also recommends not depicting suicide as the result of any one factor, but James, Megan, Nicole and Jenna are all one-note characters driven by definable, almost stereotypical circumstances. They’re all given unique ways of killing themselves, too. Frankly, the simultaneous acts of suicide as the climax feel like they do more harm than good.
An epilogue tries to bring some posthumous meaning to their deaths, with Megan’s surviving sibling encouraging teenagers to spin the idea of #whentodayends into something positive, to talk about the good things they did in a day. It’s a cheap answer to a problem not properly dealt with in any depth during the actual film. If Leoni had focused on just one or two of these characters and handled the actual suicide sequences with more sensitivity, it would have been just as effective and given more time to dig into whichever combination of Jenna, Megan, James or Nicole he chose.
Leoni also tackles the subject of cyber-bullying — and physical bullying — in each of these stories, but it feels contrived for a film so deeply engaged in the negative aspects of social media to not also attempt emphasizing the positive until its epilogue, particularly because it borrows the very visual language used by teenagers to find virtual communities within social media. Surely there are positives to this mode of expression. With four ongoing stories, having one end with one of the students finding some form of salvation rather than tragedy would have provided a respite from the “everything sucks” refrain that connects each story. The tonal contrast would have heightened the impact of the final moments rather than making everything feel so outlandishly dark.
Given Leoni’s success adapting the found-footage idea into Generation Z’s technological prowess, the lack of sensitivity in the storytelling is ultimately just frustrating. The emphasis on big emotions, shocking depictions of violence and threadbare characterization makes When Today Ends feel right at home with the perceived artifice of the vlogosphere when it could have transcended it. Telling desperate teens to focus on the good things and do something positive is hardly a panacea for teenagers at rock bottom. Showing them four graphic ways to end it all makes this, despite the best intentions, a messaging failure.