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Mass (2021) – Review: Director Fran Kranz Has Crafted a Mature Look at Grief, Sadness, and Forgiveness

January 21, 2022

Quick Thoughts: – Grade – A – Director/Writer Fran Kranz has crafted something truly special. 

Shortly after finishing Mass, I immediately went online to see if the film had been adapted from a stage play that director/writer Fran Kranz had produced. I incorrectly assumed that he wrote the piece, and performed it hundreds of times to perfect the timing, speeches and tissue box placement that make it so rich. When I learned that he wrote it as a film, and not a play, it actually made a lot of sense because the actors aren’t playing to the back row in Mass, and instead it’s meant to be an intimate look at two families trying to reconcile with grief stemming from a mass shooting that left several teenagers dead. The intimate setting inside a church classroom, which acts as a neutral ground for the two couples feels believably lived in, with the circular folding table, stackable chairs, and the slightly askew horizontal blinds which let in welcome natural light. What follows is surprisingly mature and somber, and if you’re looking for melodrama, whopper monologues, and an ending gut punch, you’ve come to the wrong place as Mass is more interested in finding closure and peace for its characters

Mass begins with a moderator named Karen (Michelle N. Carter) searching for a suitable place to hold the meeting, which has been six years in the making. She’s worried about any distractions and wonders if the choir practice and accompanying piano music will be too distracting for the families. She, and church volunteers Judy (Breeda Wool) and Anthony (Kagen Albright) settle on a quiet room in the rear of the church that is far enough away from the noise, and will allow the families to talk without being interrupted by a rousing rendition of “Go Tell it on the Mountain.” What’s nice about this moment is that it sets up the importance of the meeting, as it requires a moderator, and could be waylaid by too many distractions. Also, I like how Mass begins with a slight comedic tone that doesn’t immediately drown you with sadness, this allows the viewer to settle in and get ready for what’s to come. 

The four people meeting are a married couple Jay Perry (Jason Issacs sporting wonderful bags under his eyes), and Gail (Martha Plimpton), whose child was killed during a school shooting. The other couple are the divorced parents of the school shooter, Linda (Ann Dowd) and Richard (Reed Birney), who have been largely quiet since the tragedy for fear of lawsuits or threats of violence from grieving family members or their friends. When they finally meet they exchange pleasantries (and flowers), and assure each other that there will be no lawsuits or issues that stem from the meeting. With all the chess pieces in place, Kranz guides us through an emotional discussion that is loaded with tears, denial and anger. Issacs and Plimpton clearly want to unload on Linda and Richard for raising a monster, and it takes everything in them to keep it civil as they’re asked to be fireworks who can’t actually explode.  

After years of grief and sadness the four characters are equally exhausted because they’ve had to live with tragedy, or know that their child grew into a killer who used homemade bombs to terrorize his victims. Their conversation is loaded with offense, defense, denial, truth, tears, raised voices, platitudes, and eventually mutual understanding. It’s thrilling to watch because it’s so intimate and real, it’s like you’ve been placed inside the classroom as a spectator witnessing the event and there’s nothing that can take you out of it because the performances are so solid, and the dialogue doesn’t feel stylized or manipulative. It’s easy to understand why the four actors took the roles, as they are wildly meaty and all of them are equally weighted. It seems like a true ensemble which is why they were bestowed the Best Ensemble award by the Atlanta Film Critics. and were nominated for Best Ensemble by the Georgia Film Critics Association (I’m a member of it – Licorice Pizza won, which is cool too).

A lot of credit needs to go to cinematographer Ryan Jackson-Healy who finds enough interesting angles to keep the conversation looking interesting. While filming inside a room seems easy, it’s not, as the four characters need coverage and Jackson-Healy never finds a flat shot, or an overly stylized angle to film the meeting. His camera work services Fran Kranz’s excellent script by knowing that it’s an excellent script, and the main goal is to get the actors in frame and not distract from the conversation. Looking back at Mass now, it is more impressive that Kranz made his debut with it. It doesn’t feel overly written (there are no moments that have exclamation points on them), and it’s very mature, and controlled. The performances are all top-notch, and while Dowd is receiving the lion’s share of the nominations, there isn’t a weak link in the group. 

Final thoughts: Between Holler, The Novice, Tick, Tick….Boom!, and Luzzu, 2021 was loaded with excellent movies by first time directors.  I’m excited to see what Kranz does next.

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