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'Tower' provides a surreal, sad look at the University of Texas massacre

Catch the animated documentary at the Brattle starting Friday.
Kino Lorber

Combining traditional documentary tropes with experimental animation techniques, director Keith Maitland’s “Tower” is like nothing you’ve seen before. An oral history as a visual poem, the movie expands and collapses time to place the viewer alongside the victims of sniper Charles Whitman’s massacre from the University of Texas Tower on that hot August morning in 1966.

Opening at the Brattle Theatre this week after winning the Boston Society of Film Critics’ 2016 award for Best Animated Film, “Tower” might in lesser hands have quite easily drifted into art-school pretentiousness or queasy exploitation. But Maitland honors the stories of these survivors, resulting in one of the most emotional experiences you’ll have at the movies this year.

The Mamas and the Papas’ “Monday Monday” lulls us into the hazy normalcy of a bustling campus just moments before it’s shattered forever by violence. Maitland has cast young actors to read from his interviews with the victims, and reenactments are rendered with the quivering rotoscope animation that his fellow Austin filmmaker Richard Linklater used for“Waking Life” and “A Scanner Darkly.”

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Once the shooting starts, editor Austin Reedy begins layering in black-and-white archival footage, along with snippets from radio and television broadcasts. What could have been a jumble of mismatched formats attains a remarkable fluidity, reminiscent of the propulsive collages from Oliver Stone’s “JFK”-era.

“Tower” foregrounds the testimony of Claire Wilson James (“played” in the voice-overs and animated sequences by actress Violett Beane) who lost her boyfriend and unborn child in the massacre. The first to be shot from the tower, she laid bleeding and exposed on the UT Mall’s scorching cement for the rest of Whitman’s 96-minute siege. In a moment of incredible compassion, a young woman named Rita Starpattern risked her life running into the line of fire just to lie by James’ side and comfort her until the shooting stopped.

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There are lots of amazing little moments like that in “Tower,” with regular folks rising to the occasion and surprising even themselves with unexpected valor. (This film’s commitment to everyday heroes provides a welcome bit of counterprogramming to the noxious preening of Mark Wahlberg’s fictional supercop in the odious “Patriots Day.”) Whitman is pointedly never shown and his name is mentioned only once in passing. This is a movie about the innocents.

Maitland uses the animation to expressionistically convey their stunned perspectives, whether dropping out backgrounds to leave leaving bodies floating in empty space, or splashing white silhouettes on a blood-red screen. “Tower” attains the woozy, time-standing-still sensation of trauma as it happens, capturing the shock and horror of a tragic situation that these days occurs with depressing regularity.

If you go

Jan. 20-26

Brattle Theatre

40 Brattle St., Cambridge,

$8-$11, brattlefilm.org

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