Written by: Fran Kranz
Starring: Reed Birney, Ann Dowd, Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton
Stewardship and care for children generally fall in the job description of being a parent. Presenting unconditional love even when one’s child is responsible for one of the most heinous offenses to human life. This issue of responsibility sits right at the core of the conversation occurring in Mass where it sets up heartbreaking and confrontational dialogue trying to discern responsibility and the possibility of forgiveness.
A few years following a school shooting, the parents of one of the victims, Jay (Jason Isaacs) and Gail (Martha Plimpton) have a sit-down meeting with the parents of the shooter, Linda (Ann Dowd) and Richard (Reed Birney). An opportunity to have an open dialogue with unclear expectations, this quartet tries to process what might have caused it all.
Opening with a very awkward exchange between church employees and the individuals setting up this meeting builds up to what this conversation could be like. The cordialness of the employees sitting in complete contrast to the organizer could not be more different but it sets the atmosphere for a sense of uncomfortableness this film will force upon its audience. This initial cordiality then shifts when the two pairs of parents arrive where it becomes obvious they have an elephant in the room they will eventually get to but the obligation to express kind small talk cannot escape them.
Once the meat of the conversation begins, Mass grabs a hold and never lets go of the intensity of the dialogue occurring. These four individuals encompass most of this film’s runtime as they sit in a room but the dialogue never once gets stifling or unengaging. Not even for a minuscule second, which serves as quite the praise for the screenplay of Frank Kranz. It does not go for a larger political discussion about gun violence and what could have prevented this from a legislative level. Everything in this conversation stays with the pressures of being parents on both sides of what occurred and taking this approach makes for a far more personal and utterly heartbreaking conversation.
Jay and Gail certainly have their indescribable pain to contend with but the far more fascinating couple proves to be Richard and Linda. Not often do the families of the school shooters get the spotlight to speak on their pain, which makes sense. The last thing anyone wants to hear following a tragedy is from the individuals who created the monster who ended the lives of innocent people. However, this film gives the opportunity to have a fruitful conversation about the responsibility of parenthood and whether or not the parents of the shooter share in the blame of what occurred. When the conversation reaches this juncture, it gets into its most complicated and messiest, which should happen considering the pain involved with these conversations. As stated by the couple, everyone grieved for the victims, but Richard and Linda grieved for all who died, including their son, the shooter.
Issues including the potential signs of what could have caused this and how it could have possibly been stopped with some level of intervention get discussed, which makes the placement of this conversation a few years after the incident an intriguing spot for it. It’s obvious these parents have had the opportunity to somewhat process everything and as stated there have been some lawsuits and other legal action that occurred since the incident. It leaves the impression the things shared between these two pairs of parents have been on their minds for a long time and this meeting provides the first opportunity for it to be directly shared.
Moments get intense in the room as can be imagined from the topic of the conversations but none of it feels overdone for the purpose of adding drama to the story. The authentic anger displayed throughout the narrative matches with all of the other emotions of what this potential closure can look like for these parents. All of it feels measured while allowing for a profound amount of humanity to remain for this horribly difficult conversation.
Picking the best performer out of this crop must be what it’s like for a parent to pick out their favorite child because this quartet of actors truly give it their all and turn in jaw-dropping performances. Needing to carry all of the dialogue of the feature, they each play a different role in the conversation, and the development each of them has from the beginning of the conversation to the end is mesmerizing. However, if forced to pick, the best has to be Martha Plimpton, who has quite the arc to undertake with her portrayal of Gail. Initially the most hesitant to be in the room and then eventually getting to the point she arrives at just demonstrates acting at its very finest. Truly an astonishing performance but this ensemble well and truly all deliver powerhouse performances and probably the best in their individual careers.
Undoubtedly uncomfortable but vital, Mass presents an opportunity for closure but the characters involved have to work for it. Each of them gets drug through the emotional wringer as they take on a wrought but mature breakdown of being the parents of something so horrendous. The avenues this film speaks on truly feel groundbreaking and having these four have this honest conversation feels like such a storytelling achievement even if it just happens to be this quartet sitting in a room talking. Unshakably great and pieces of dialogue that will continually ring through my head for many months to come.