Sundance 2021: ‘Mass’ addresses healing in the wake of tragedy in an intimate space

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Mass, the feature film debut of writer-director Fran Kranz, is a brutally honest exploration of the people who are affected (and often forgotten) in the aftermath of a school shooting. Mass tackles the raw emotions of its characters and works to enter into the most difficult and harrowing conversations. What results is a film that is driven by the strength of its actors’ performances, an intimate setting, and nuance. But, Mass stops short of being great by hinging upon the idea that forgiveness is required for healing, while giving the couples at the center an opportunity to do so without full acknowledgement of who is given the chance—and in its treatment of the shooter. 

In the basement of an Episcopalian church, Jay (Jason Isaacs) and Gail (Martha Plimpton), who lost their son Evan during a high school shooting, agree to meet with the parents of the shooter, Richard (Reed Blimey) and Linda (Ann Dowd), six years after Hayden killed Evan and several other students before taking his own life. Jay and Gail’s goal, as their therapist has oft-repeated, is to understand and not interrogate Richard and Linda. What proceeds is an uncomfortable, frustrating, open, tense, and nearly cathartic discussion about the past and present; what happened the day of the shooting, and how all of their lives have changed and been affected ever since. Both couples are grieving the loss of their sons, albeit under very different circumstances, with Jay and Gail attempting to make sense of Richard and Linda’s role as parents so that they could heal and move on. Meanwhile, Richard and Linda attempt to defend and understand what happened themselves, unable to separate their love and memories of who their son was to make sense of the killer he ultimately became. 

Kranz’s film is presented as more of a play, with the couples confined to one place and the dialogue working to escalate the tension between them. Mass digs deep to approach the emotions and topics in an unnerving conversation that most would be unwilling (and not ready) to have. The characters are all, to various extents, victims of Hayden’s murderous acts, connected through tragedy and separated by anger and blame. Mass is carried by its powerhouse performances. Isaacs and Plimpton run the gamut of emotions, from fury to frustration, and a sorrow so devastating it’ll knock the breath from your lungs. Each portrayal lingers, sinking deep as they, like us, work to make sense of Richard and Linda’s request to meet. Blimey and Dowd are equally as giving in their performances, with Dowd conveying a sense of loss and longing desperation for the other couple’s acceptance. Blimey, on the other hand, teeters between being polite and needlessly defensive. 

Similar to Jay and Gail, Linda is trying to find closure, absolution for her son’s insidious crimes, searching for empathy from the very couple whose son lost his life because of hers. Richard is far less sympathetic of a character, spending the majority of the film explaining his son’s mental health state, how he was bullied in school, and how he became more of a recluse, turning to online platforms and distancing himself from his parents. All of which come off as ripped-from-the-headlines excuses for what he did, a prime example of how the media perceives the white teen boy who got good grades and could have had a promising life, but squandered it with the violence he chose to enact. 

Perhaps this is where Mass falters. As the film goes on, it’s hard to imagine that Richard and Linda aren’t at least somewhat aware of what their son is capable of—making a pipe bomb, having homicidal thoughts, and threatening to beat his mother are pretty alarming. There is a shred of sympathy to be found in their belief that they were good parents, as most parents tend to believe as much regardless of who or what their children accomplish. No, it’s not so black and white. However, Mass’ avoidance in addressing the very privilege that finds the couples in the room, or how, as a white teen, Hayden was at least given some benefit of the doubt in the court of public opinion, removes some of the sympathy built in for Richard and Linda. There is eventually understanding and even forgiveness on the road to healing because Hayden was “in pain,” which sidesteps the fact that his actions were hateful and cruel. Healing can happen without forgiveness and it’s tiresome that it’s never presented as an option. 

Ultimately, there’s a lot to like about Mass. It’s intimate, nuanced, and intriguing, with its handling of difficult conversations and emotions largely thought-provoking and well-crafted. It’s heavy and heartbreaking, bolstered by the fantastic performances of the cast and brilliantly shot. At the same time, Mass’ treatment of the shooter and the fact that it spends a lot of time seeking to forgive hinders a lot of its momentum in the final act. 

Mass premiered Jan. 30, 2021 at the Sundance Film Festival. For more Sundance 2021 coverage, click here



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