Jason Issacs sits across from Martha Plimpton in Mass

Sundance 2021: Mass Review

One of 2021's must-see films.

Actor Fran Kranz’s directorial debut is a tightly-woven, intimate drama about grief, forgiveness, and blame anchored by powerhouse performances from his small acting ensemble.

In Mass, Kranz tackles the unfortunately all-too-real scenario of mass school shootings in America. While not directly based on any one specific event, Mass centres on the parents left grieving years after the headlines fade. When the story is no longer tragic mainstream news, they are left to try and make sense of a senseless act. The film follows two sets of parents as they meet face-to-face to discuss the impact the tragedy has had on their lives.

Six years earlier, Gail and Jay (Martha Plimpton and Jason Isaacs) lost their son in a high school shooting. Through a third-party mediator, they have agreed to meet with Linda and Richard (Ann Dowd and Reed Birney), the parents of the teenage shooter. Both sets of parents are victims of the shooter, with each dealing in a different way. What unfolds next is a roller coaster of grief and blame as the adults move through agonizing moments of awkwardness and simmering tension to an emotional boiling point that doesn’t come until an hour into the chamber drama.

The action is set entirely within a church meeting room. It unfolds with its four actors seated at a table, dancing through politeness in real-time as Kranz trains his lens on each of them in turn. There are no flashbacks to break the tension, just a quartet of incredibly talented performers who build and build it to the point of shattering.

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This ensemble is note-perfect, with each player giving a sublime performance. Combined with a sharp script, Mass manages to keep its characters from dipping into caricature or histrionics. It’s a challenging set piece, especially for veterans Birney and Dowd, who have the added task of conveying the conflict that comes with loving a child who could do something so horrendous. It’s a true masterclass in acting from all four stars.

Everyone in Mass is a victim of what happened — including the shooter himself — but the film doesn’t ask for judgement or for audiences to take sides. It simply lets the raw emotion unfold on screen in an incredibly nuanced way. And just when Kranz seems ready to let his characters move forward into forgiveness, Dowd returns to deliver one more emotional gut-punch in the film’s final moments.

A psychologically complex drama, it’s easy to see how the emotionally-raw Mass could unfold on a stage. Kranz, who also wrote the script, explores the inner workings of the characters with exquisite detail, all while avoiding sentimentality and politicization. It’s an astonishing achievement for the first-time director who is perhaps best-known as the “fool” in Cabin In The Woods.

Mass may be a difficult watch, but it’s certainly a rewarding one that will stick with viewers long after the credits roll. It’s one of 2021’s first must-see films.

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