Throw a pebble at a window and you might not break it, but the impact will crack it and send long tendrils of damage throughout the pane. No matter how hard you might try to repair it, the glass will forever stay broken. The same can be said for communities. Consider the case of a chemistry class gone wrong in an unnamed New York City public school in Christina Kallas’ The Rainbow Experiment (2018). Faced with a rowdy, inattentive class, chemistry teacher Lisa Dhawan (Nina Mehta) calls over the students for an experiment that will hopefully quiet them down. With a beaker of solvent, a Bunsen burner, and a stick, she demonstrates how different chemicals create different colored flames. But the class grows even more chaotic, led in part by bad boy Matty Fairchild (Connor Siemer). At the end of her rope, Dhawan calls Matty over to repeat the experiment. Only this time, the beaker of solvent erupts into a fireball, melting off half the boy’s face. This is the impact moment, the place where the pebble hits the glass that shatters the student body, the harried teachers and administrators, and the frenzied parents who—after a clerical error—all received vague emails suggesting that their children may have been the one hospitalized. Throughout its indulgent 2+ hour runtime, Kallas meticulously traces each of these cracks as they travel further and further away from the initial accident and how they weave friends, enemies, and strangers together into an unescapable web.
The Rainbow Experiment is above all an ensemble piece designed to magnify dozens of powerful performances. Skillfully guided by Kallas, the scenes were all shot in one take while allowing room for improvisation. The naked immediacy of the drama and the urgency of the strained emotions suggests John Cassavetes at his most indulgent, especially as school and police investigators start peeling back the other characters’ emotional and psychological defenses. Mehta gets a show-stealing scene where she tearfully recounts the accident to a group of indignant firefighters before the teachers’ union liaison can swoop in and help her. In his few scenes Richard Liriano projects a pulsing yet understated pathos comparable to early Marlon Brando as JC Caraballo, Matty’s best friend who wears sunglasses partially to help his sickly eyes and partially to hide bruises from his abusive father. The beleaguered Principal Williamson (Patrick Bonck) is spot-on as a desperate man worn down by decades of thankless work; we sense he would be equally unprepared to deal with the ferocity of hundreds of furious parents even if he wasn’t dealing with his unstable ex-wife. And Kevin Kane is devastating as David McKenna, a frantic father of one of the chemistry class students who discovers his child has started taking drugs to deal with his alcoholism. And hovering above it all is the unseen, omnipresent Siemer as the ghostly Matty, acting as Greek chorus, audience proxy, smirking narrator, and accuser of all involved.
If Kallas can be faulted for anything, it’s her ambition. There are simply too many characters, too many subplots, too many interconnecting relationships to keep track of. Kallas’ hyperkinetic editing style mixed with frequent split-screens between multiple points of action make it difficult to follow. By the end when two characters threaten each other and a room full of parents with handguns, we realize we have no idea who these people are, how they got the guns, and what exactly they want. Eventually one comes to appreciate each scene as an independent piece of micro-theater. If Kallas had whittled her cast down by a third and gone a little easier on the kaleidoscopic split-screen, The Rainbow Experiment would have been stunning. But as it stands, it’s too frustrating to overlook the forest for the trees.