Tuesday 19 October 2021

MASS - London Film Festival 2021

After a school shooting, the parents of one of the victims and those of the student who killed him meet to try and make sense of the tragedy.

One table, four chairs, four grieving parents and an insurmountable weight of trauma to reckon with - the premise and presentation of Mass is simple enough, but this new drama from writer/director Fran Kranz makes the most of its talented cast to tackle a cavalcade of issues America is currently dealing with, but without offering any easy answers. On opposite sides of the table are Jay and Gail (Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton), mourning the loss of their child at the hands of a school shooter; and Richard and Linda (Reed Birney and Ann Dowd), the parents of the shooter. From the moment the four main characters enter the same room, Mass offers a complex array of emotional beats, both individually and by each pairing. Forced to reckon with their parenting choices and what they missed in their son's behaviour prior to the tragedy, Richard and Linda have to fend off accusations of negligent parenting whilst also hoping to use the meeting to find some way to move forward with their own lives.

The cast are all on superb form, with a reliably understated performance by Ann Dowd, in particular. What's most apparent though is that we've been starved of the talents of Martha Plimpton for too long. It's no criticism that she's spent the last two decades mostly working on television, particularly in the era of peak TV, but her roles have skewed towards comedy and procedurals, robbing us of the dramatic clout she offers here. Likewise, Reed Birney and Jason Isaacs as two very different father figures deliver fine performances, but the real gold is in the conflicting and often accusatory dichotomy between the two mothers. Plimpton's Gail states "Why do I want to know about your son? Because he killed mine", met with equally heartbreaking contrast by Dowd's Linda, "The world mourned ten. We mourned eleven".

With its chamber piece set-up (the action is mostly confined to their meeting room in the back of an Episcopalian church), Mass is unavoidably stagey, with four characters delivering monologues with occasional bursts of cross-table back and forth, to the point that it's surprising to learn this isn't based on stage work, but is instead an original script from Kranz. The stage-like tendencies are not a distraction per se, and the stripped back focus on the script and the performances even add weight to the subject matter.

Kranz - best known as an actor for his appearances in a number of Joss Whedon productions, most notably as slacker turned hero Marty in Drew Goddard's Cabin in the Woods - makes his directorial debut here, based on his own script, and it's a fantastic debut. Avoiding cliché and with vital commentary on the "thoughts and prayers" culture that has pervaded American culture in the wake of any tragedy, the film tackles gun control, the influence of violent video games, mental health and parental culpability, without portioning blame solely at anyone's feet. It's also capably directed without being showy, the camera only making slow, deliberate tracking moves around the table as the conversation flows back and forth.

A delicately handled, thought-provoking drama, full of remorse and regret, Mass makes a powerful statement on many core societal issues without relying on bombast. Kranz's smart script is expertly utilised by its talented cast to deliver a heartbreakingly vital drama for modern America.



Mass screened as part of the 2021 London Film Festival. More information about the festival can be found here.

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