Sundance Review: Fran Kranz’s ‘Mass’

In a highly impressive and explosive feature screenwriting and directing debut, Fran Kranz has crafted Mass as a highly intense, involving, moving and thought-provoking chamber piece of a film that explores the way two different sets of parents deal with the emotional aftermath of a school shooting, years after it occurred. This stunningly well-acted piece, an acquisition title in the Sundance Film Festival’s Premieres section, could just as easily be a play as it essentially takes place on one set and is heavily dialogue-driven, yet Kranz skillfully skirts the pitfalls of staging a conversation between four people and makes it thrillingly cinematic on its own terms.

Of course, any work like this will ultimately live or die on the talents of its cast, and Kranz, an actor for most of his career, knows this and has cast his drama immaculately with four veteran actors who turn this into a gut-wrenching meeting that takes them, and us, on a roller coaster of emotions. Make no mistake, this is very tough and demanding material, probably as difficult to play as it is to watch, but the rewards on offer here are immense as all of this feels very raw and very real.

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The setting is a conference room at a local church. Jay (Jason Isaacs) and Gail (Martha Plimpton) arrive having come from out of town, exchanging niceties with a woman who has apparently set up this meeting. They prepare to meet another couple, Richard (Reed Birney) and Linda (Ann Dowd), who live nearby and arrive just a little late but when they do Linda has brought along a plant as a bit of an offering which she gives to Gail. The reasons for the encounter between these two couples are not readily apparent, and Kranz’s script takes its sweet time in revealing plot points, but small talk about their individual families soon centers on their sons and we find out the real reason for this visit: a horrific school shooting that ended in great tragedy and loss for both families, but from different sides of the coin. Richard and Linda’s son was the disturbed shooter, Jay and Gail’s son one of his victims.

They share their sides of the event as awkwardness builds into tension, what happened long before still a stake in the heart for each — particularly Jay and Gail, who clearly still have not come to any sort of closure over the death of their son and hope this meeting will give it to them. The same can be said for Richard and Linda, dealing years later with the ramifications of what their son did and trying to come to terms with what it has done to the other families affected by it. The destruction of their lives caused by this unspeakable event is incalculable, but this is an attempt at healing, forgiveness, humanity.

Kranz first was inspired to write Mass while driving and hearing reports of the Parkland High School shooting in 2018. He had to pull to the side of the road, completely overtaken by what he was hearing. That plus what he remembered of Columbine years earlier, together with his knowledge of the nonprofit Forgiveness Project (an effort to bring disparate parties together), formed the bones of his screenplay. In such divisive times this is indeed difficult subject matter, but necessary. Its very execution is superbly restrained, with no attempt to jazz it up visually with flashbacks to the actual shooting or anything else except a few family photos Gail brings along to show should the opportunity arise. The dialogue feels completely authentic; nothing forced, no theatrical monologues that get in the way of truth here. Each actor has their moments, and all four deserve to be in any awards conversation once this film is released. This is an exceptional ensemble from Birney’s defensive posture to Isaacs’ slow-boiling angst, Plimpton’s emotional breakdown and Dowd’s tentative compassion. Wow. This is acting at its finest in a movie that will have you riveted.

Dylan Matlock, Casey Wilder Mott, and J.P. Oullette are producers along with Kranz.

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