Sundance Review: “Mass”

Year: 2021
Runtime: 110 minutes
Director/Writer: Fran Kranz
Stars: Reed Birney, Michelle N. Carter, Ann Dowd, Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton, Breeda Wool

By Morgan Roberts

*Warning: This review discusses gun violence*

What happens in the aftermath of a school shooting? We know the immediate aftermath. We broadcast the pain of the survivors and those who survive the victims. We send thoughts and prayers to loved ones robbed of their child, their sibling, their classmate. But what happens as the years wear on? When public interest is maybe only renewed on a milestone anniversary? What happens to those parents?

Fran Kranz takes us on an intimate journey between two sets of parents who experienced just that. In “Mass” (2021), Gail (Martha Plimpton) and Jay (Jason Isaacs) lost their son in a school shooting. And one quiet day, the couple sit down with Linda (Ann Dowd) and Richard (Reed Birney), the parents of the boy who carried out the shooting. In this film, gun control and gun violence are touched upon, but the focus is much more about the people who remain. The people who must live every day attempt to find reason in an unfathomable tragedy.

Ann Dowd and Reed Birne appear in Mass by Fran Kranz, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Ryan Jackson-Healy. All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or ‘Courtesy of Sundance Institute.’ Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

The film is anchored by the four performances of Birney, Dowd, Isaacs, and Plimpton. Each actor brings so much to their characters before any of them enter the frame. Birney shows a complexity to Richard that makes him hard to reach. He is a man of values and morals, and instead of tarnishing those, attempts to simplify his pain. To me, this is the hardest character to relate to given his aloofness, but Birney masterfully lets you peak behind the curtain from time to time to understand Richard’s guardedness. Meanwhile, Jay attempts to come off as the level-headed good guy. Isaacs makes him extremely accessible. You’re drawn into this character and his growth before you see the pain that continues to lie underneath.

Dowd and Plimpton feel like two sides of the same coin. Both are maternal, women who have unwavering love for their children. Gail, at first, seems a bit cold, seems a bit reluctant to the meeting that all parties agreed upon. It is in her hesitation that you see her grief. Plimpton gives you a performance both expected and unexpected, grounded with reality while elevating it through the way she maneuvers through each scene. Meanwhile, Linda oozes empathy, likely due to her innate need to receive it. Dowd holds the juxtaposing natures of Linda’s love and hurt so seamlessly. You are immediately drawn to her character and cannot help but feel with her.

With its out-of-this-world performances, it would be no surprise if there are Oscar conversations for the actors once “Mass” reaches a wider audience.

Mass shootings, school shootings are a tough subject to discuss. And while elements of what make mass shootings possible, i.e. mental health conditions, are discussed, some of the others, i.e. accessibility to fire arms, are only briefly mentioned. It would have been nice to see mental health as less of a scapegoat in this film, considering it was mentioned to be a common scapegoat following mass shootings. What was impressive, however, was the way the film dived into what happens when people lose children and the complex love that remains after unspeakable deeds are carried out. The latter of which is displayed so wonderfully by Dowd, as Linda both accepts accountability for her son while also continuing to love and miss him. Having those pieces together allows for that to be powerful.

“Mass” is certainly not a feel-good film. It is not one that necessarily leaves you feeling hopeful, but it does give some tangibility to grief. It normalizes how grief can be layered, how everlasting it can be. With its out-of-this-world performances, it would be no surprise if there are Oscar conversations for the actors once “Mass” reaches a wider audience.

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