Sundance Film Festival 2021: Mass (2021)

In a nondescript town, in a nondescript Episcopalian church, two sets of parents meet. Fran Kranz’s directorial debut, Mass, could take place anywhere. The specificity of the world lies in the performances and never giving this location a name. Because that Episcopalian church feels like every church where people might have community meetings, AA meetings, weddings, and of course, funerals. The truly remarkable element of Kranz’s work is that the intricacies of the lives on display are fleshed out in ways that make this story of grief and shared trauma something uniquely powerful.

Years ago, there was a school shooting by Hayden, Richard (Reed Birney) and Linda’s (Ann Dowd) son. Ethan, Jay (Jason Isaacs) and Gail’s (Martha Plimpton) son was one of the victims. The two sets of parents have agreed to meet at a neutral site for both of them, the basement of a small Episcopalian church. The film bookends with scenes outside of the room, but in real time, we are trapped with these four people as they try to mutually put the past behind them.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Kranz’s film isn’t about the politics of gun violence. The very adroit script weighs in on the political sides of the argument just enough to make it realistic. His focus as a storyteller isn’t about whether guns are a moral stain on our country or not, he avoids that kind of didacticism. We hear the act described but are wisely never shown it.

The conversation avoids blame and becomes about catharsis, not just for Ethan’s parents but Hayden’s parents, too. Richard and Linda feel like they exhausted every measure in trying to help their son, yet in the end they changed every decision. Philosophically, Richard approaches the tragedy from a different angle than Jay. Some of this seems like it is some type of exterior defense from years of the world pointing fingers. Kranz wisely never makes Richard a villain. He made mistakes, he’s human, which is what the film is ultimately most interested in.

School shootings in America are an epidemic. It’s incredibly hard to not bring personal baggage or personal views into a film like this. I watched this as my two children, approaching school age, played in the other room. In addition, I also hold staunch anti-gun views. Honestly, I can’t believe we are still having this debate.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

I bring this up because the movie is targeting how our societal guilt and innocence can stew together until it is difficult to find a way forward. Kranz doesn’t reveal exactly why these four people are led into a room for quite a while. The handling of them feels like they are collectively about to decide whether or not to drop a nuclear weapon on a foreign nation. By doing this, he’s also being purposefully oblique about whose son is who.

This is a true chamber piece between four exceptional actors. Jason Isaacs, in particular, gives a raw and desperate performance that is perfectly calibrated, trying to compose himself in a situation fraught at every turn. The other true standout is Ann Dowd. Her son might’ve been the shooter, but she also loved him and still loves him. That’s a hard balance to find and Dowd orchestrates each moment with a tender brittleness that brings genuine humanity to a parent that never got to grief like the rest.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Mass won’t be for everyone. By nature, it is a challenging work that never reaches a true climax. By never finding that moment, Kranz lets the pall of school shootings hang dense over the action. This was just another school shooting. They happen all the time in America, that’s just the way our society operates now. It’s hard to fix something that you aren’t willing to talk about, which has trapped us in this spiral. These four people have shown up to the church to find a common enemy or looked for something to blame, however Kranz lets them leave having attended their own private funeral.

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