New from A Reel of One’s Own by Andrea Thompson: Sundance 2021 Review: Mass

By Andrea Thompson

Fran Kranz may have written and directed “Mass,” but he didn’t want to make a film. Not really. He wanted to make a play. All the hallmarks of a quite good play are there. Nearly the entire plot takes place not just in one location, but in one room, and it mostly consists of a conversation about a harrowing event in the lives of the four central characters. The script isn’t snarky or pretentious, and it’s entirely in line with what “Mass” considers to be normal people who have to wrestle with an unfathomable event.

Just what these two sets of parents have gathered to discuss is supposed to be something of a mystery, but it really doesn’t take long to guess the exact nature of it. School shootings are sadly no longer a rarity, but what makes “Mass” stand out is the context. Jay (Jason Isaacs), and Gail (Martha Plimpton) lost their son to this increasingly common act of violence, and they’ve agreed to meet with Richard (Reed Birney) and Linda (Ann Dowd), the parents of the shooter. 

That this ensemble would be more than capable of carrying the sheer emotional force of the subject matter is no shock, and each cast member is perfectly in tune with each other and the material in a way that would bring tears to a casting director’s eye. Yet even as raw emotional truths are revealed, the film becomes insular due to more than mere location, which happens to be a nice, cozy church that’s typically equated with safety. It’s in the central question of why such a thing would occur, especially from a (white) child with two loving (white) parents in a nice safe (probably majority white) neighborhood. Such things are not supposed to happen, at least not there.

Layers are added, explored, and dissected in the young shooter’s life, who took his own shortly after murdering many of his classmates. But at heart, he’s depicted the way his demographic generally is – as the mentally disturbed, tragic loner, even if “Mass” still manages to capture much of the inherent heartbreak of parenthood. However, it’s no longer enough to look inward. Tweak just one detail, be it race, class or location, and the central questions and even truths get flipped on their head, especially when not everyone is allowed the same range of expression. Martha Plimpton is the one who does the most with the least, expressing most of her rage on a face capable of displaying the kind of emotional range that’s as eloquent as any script, but it’s due to her on-screen husband quieting her every time she’s openly angry, only for him to become the voice of rage himself, while she eventually becomes the voice of cathartic compassion. 

“Mass” is at least intelligent enough to know that sometimes there are no answers. But more is needed, such as the simple recognition that not everyone is given not only the benefit of the doubt, but room to grieve, especially when there’s a body count involved.

Grade: C+

from A Reel Of One’s Own

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