Shinelle Azoroh in DeKalb Elementary

Back in 2006, I got my first taste of Irish director Martin McDonagh when his wickedly funny Six Shooter screened at Landmark’s Century Centre along with the other Oscar-nominated live-action shorts. McDonagh took home the award that year, and 12 years later his black comedy Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a strong contender for Best Picture. I wouldn’t be surprised if, a decade from now, we were seeing equally big things from the filmmakers on this year’s program, such as Kevin Wilson Jr., whose haunting My Nephew Emmett dramatizes the last night in the life of Emmett Till; or British filmmaker Chris Overton, whose painful The Silent Child tells the story of a young girl whose mother punishes her for her deafness; or Australian filmmakers Derin Seale and Josh Lawson, whose farcical The Eleven O’Clock pits a psychiatrist against a patient who thinks he’s a psychiatrist (and sounds just as good).

My favorite, though, is Reed Van Dyk’s DeKalb Elementary, which had me so far on the edge of my seat that only afterward did I recognize its powerful social comment. Van Dyk opens with a stationary shot into the front office of an elementary school, where a young staffer named Lakisha (Shinelle Azoroh) agrees to watch the desk while the principal’s secretary takes a quick break. People file through the halls, a telephone rings, children squeal and shout on the playground—it’s your average day. But then a stocky young man asks to use the phone, and the staffer leaves the frame for a moment—long enough for the young man, Steven (Bo Mitchell), to pull an automatic rifle out of his bag. “This is real, this isn’t a joke,” he tells Lakisha. “We’re all gonna die today.” When an older gentleman happens into the office, Steven backs him off by firing a shot at a framed certificate on the wall, which sends glass flying and the school into lockdown.

We all know how this one ends—with children dead, parents shattered, and politicians enacting the tired rituals of sorrow and outrage. But Lakisha keeps a cool head. Enlisted by Steven as his phone liaison to the 911 dispatcher, she relays the information that he’s armed and off his meds. At one point Steven spins the rifle around and points the barrel at his mouth, rehearsing his final shot. Lakisha pleads with him not to harm himself: “Just last year, I was two seconds from where you are now.” After the climax, Van Dyk concludes with another stationary shot of the front office, sirens in the distance augmented by the returning workaday noise of voices in the hall and a telephone ringing. A mentally unbalanced man storming an elementary school with a deadly weapon? This is, in fact, your average day.  v