On paper, a single location film about four adults sitting down to talk out their feelings about an event half a decade ago may sound more suited for the stage than the screen. But when the four adults are Ann Dowd, Martha Plimpton, Jason Isaacs, and Reed Birney, the result is a tense, emotional drama that leaves us in awe of the power of a perfectly framed and delivered monologue.
The single location is an Episcopal Church in an unnamed small town. It is filmed in Hailey, Idaho, but could just as easily be Kansas or Connecticut. The unspecific setting heightens the unsettling fact that this could happen anywhere and that these four parents could be any teenager’s parents.
Specifically, they are Evan’s parents Gail and Jay (Martha Plimpton and Jason Isaacs), and Hayden’s parents, Linda and Richard (Ann Dowd and Reed Birney). It has been some six years since Hayden carried out a mass casualty attack on his high school and killed ten classmates, Evan among them. After years of lawsuits and depositions and a lot of therapy, this is the first time the four have ever sat down and talked.
The gravity of the meeting is apparent long before we know who they are or why they are coming to this community church in this small town. An anxious church employee (Brenda Wool) bustles around, desperately fussing over every last detail from refreshments to the perfect placement of a table. The several minutes it takes to get to the heart of the matter are very wise for multiple reasons, instilling the sense of importance to the meeting, and establishing the real-time pace.
When the four eventually meet and sit down, they exchange the usual uncomfortable pleasantries, and it isn’t long before the conversation takes a sharp and sudden turn into the heart of the matter. Everything about the ensuing 90 minutes — every word, every intake of breath, every tear — is perfectly delivered in a film that never lingers for too long in any one place.
There are many films about tragedy and its aftermath. One thing that sets Mass apart from most is that the viewer learns everything about the event from our present-day characters. Without a single flashback, using only descriptive language and the whole range of emotions, we understand the entire experience without ever having to see it. Jay describes walking through the school after the fact. Gail sobs about the son who will never come home. Linda describes a child who was never a monster. Richard explains the quiet grief they aren’t allowed to share with the world. Each character gets their moment, their time to say what they need to say and their opportunity to bring the audience into how they feel. Each actor does so with dignity and a level of precision and skill that is sure to pierce even the most cynical of hearts.
Writer and director Fran Krantz offers a truly stunning debut film. The actor, best known for loveably dorky characters like Topher in Dollhouse or Marty in The Cabin in the Woods, demonstrates a gift for achingly beautiful dialogue and the patience to allow a scene to breathe without dwelling too long on any one emotion or statement. Krantz also manages to avoid making the audience feel like a voyeur. We never feel like we’re intruding on a private conversation. As heartbreaking and fraught as it often is, we always feel like we belong exactly where we are, sitting and witnessing this important meeting. Because in the end, regardless of where anyone ends up or what will happen to them or to us after it is over, it is impossible to walk away without feeling change is in the air. Something is different. We are different for having shared in it.
There are a lot of important films that deal with important topics. Mass sets itself apart by letting us know that sometimes, blame and resolution aren’t the point. Often, simply feeling heard is the most powerful part of healing. This is a profound example of the impact of listening and being heard.
Mass is distributed by Bleecker Street and is available in limited release.