The directorial debut from actor Fran Kranz opens with two couples meeting in the basement of a church. We don't know right away what they are going to discuss but the film's title should be a hint. Both parents are processing the loss of a child in some way. However they are on opposite sides and the bulk of the film is an exploration of their grief, where it is shared and where it is not.
The title, Mass, refers both to the gathering of these parents and the mass shooting that now defines them. Jay (Jason Isaacs) and Gail (Martha Plimpton) are the parents of a child who was murdered. Richard (Reed Birney) and Linda (Ann Dowd) are the parents of the child who committed the mass shooting. Jay and Gail have decided they need to learn some things from Richard and Linda to process their grief and understand why such a thing happened. Gail is particularly vindictive while Jay has turned his grief into a charge for advocacy. Richard and Linda are willing to talk but cagey at first about their role in their son's actions. They insist the media has made it cut and dry but things rarely are. Talk of violent video games and other warning signs arise but Richard and Linda always wanted to believe their son was good. What parent doesn't
Mass is formally structured as a tight actor showcase. The film never leaves the church and rarely the small room they meet in. It gives the film a staged feeling and Kranz never quite figures out how to make the material cinematic. One has to imagine a stage play version would crackle with intensity. The film feels muted a bit partly due to the routine way it is shot and staged. At 110 minutes, you begin to feel the lack of visual support here.
However, the four central performances are stunning. Particularly Plimpton who burns with pain. You can't take your eyes off of her. Dowd is also great here, balancing a fine line as her character begins to admit that they turned a blind eye to some of their son's behavior in hopes he would do better. The screenplay is unafraid at the emotional complexity of the setup. The issues brought up here will give you plenty to think and talk about after the film. However, the dialogue rarely feels natural, favoring big emotional crescendos over a more realistic approach.
Mass is well worth seeking out, even if its stagey qualities make it feel like an acting exercise. The film needed to open up a bit and find a way to be a film, not just a nicely filmed stage play. Topically, the film explores the fallout of mass shootings in a way few films has. The performances will move you, particularly a late moment with Isaacs. I just wish it had found a way to move beyond its formalities.