Frontline: The Killer at Thurston High

"Frontline's" harrowing look at what led a 15-year-old Oregon boy to murder his parents and then open fire on his fellow students in 1998 should be required viewing for anyone concerned about raising children in a violent world. The docu's 12-month investigation of its subject, and its access to home movies, the boy's writings and unsettling police videos, reveal how this modern-day American tragedy could have been avoided.

“Frontline’s” harrowing look at what led a 15-year-old Oregon boy to murder his parents and then open fire on his fellow students in 1998 should be required viewing for anyone concerned about raising children in a violent world. The docu’s level-headed, 12-month investigation of its subject, and its access to home movies, the boy’s writings and unsettling police videos, reveal how this modern-day American tragedy could have been avoided had someone really listened to the boy’s cries for help.

Correspondent Peter J. Boyer begins the piece by posing this question: “What would you find if you opened the door into a young life that had produced an unspeakable horror?” The report then introduces viewers to Kip Kinkel, the young son of dedicated high school teachers in Springfield, Ore., an average, likable teen who slowly develops a strange fascination with guns.

Through interviews with friends of the family, and with Kip’s older sister Kirsten, a professional cheerleading instructor whose casual demeanor is odd for someone whose family has recently been destroyed by a tragedy, “The Killer at Thurston High” draws viewers to the world of the Kinkel family before the incident.

Although the producers feel the need to stress that this type of horror can await any seemingly happy middle-class family, what comes across at the end is that there were many instances in which the grown-ups in Kip’s life could have intervened to save him from alienation and self-hatred, and yet failed to do so.

The family’s home movies are silent witnesses to how the Kinkels’ high expectations put unfair pressure on the young boy, who not only suffered from learning disabilities, but was also not athletically inclined. Also disturbing is how helpless the parents seemed as their son developed an obsession with acquiring guns and learning about making bombs on the Internet.

The report’s most powerful portion, naturally, is the account of the shootings. As eyewitnesses detail the events of that day, appropriate police videos are interwoven with talking heads to paint a comprehensive portrait of the crime.

Still, for all its attention to detail, “Killer at Thurston High” could easily have lopped off 30 minutes of exposition from its 90 minute running time without sacrificing any of its dramatic punch.

A taped conversation with Kip, who was sentenced to 111 years in prison with no parole, serves as the report’s powerful coda. “God, I had no other choice,” we hear him say. “My parents were good people. … I didn’t know what to do. … I just want to die.” It’s the troubled voice of a confused and lost boy, and one that stays with the viewer for a long time.

Frontline: The Killer at Thurston High

PBS; Tues. Jan. 18, 10 p.m.

Production: Producer, Michael Kirk, Miri Navasky and Karen O'Connor; director, Michael Kirk; correspondent, Peter J. Boyer. "Frontline" exec producer, Michael Sullivan; "Frontline" senior exec producer, David Fanning. 90 MIN.

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