Review: Parents Reckon with Unthinkable Tragedy in Emotional, Challenging School Shooting Drama Mass

Known primarily as an actor who pops up in a lot of Joss Whedon TV and film properties, Fran Kranz has now proven himself to be a surprisingly effective writer/director as well with his debut feature Mass, a four-person drama in which two couples get together in a small church meeting room to talk about an event that has altered and destroyed their lives forever. Richard (Reed Birney) and Linda (the always great Ann Dowd) are the parents of a young man who was responsible for a mass school shooting that left many dead, including the son of Gail (Martha Plimpton) and Jay (Jason Isaacs). Their ultimate goal with this meeting is a frank and hopefully healing conversation, but the road to that destination is unclear and riddled with hazards.

Mass Image courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

It’s important to understand that Mass has no perceptible political agenda. It is not an anti-gun statement, although everyone seems to agree that the fact that no one in the government will move a finger to change gun laws in any way is appalling. The movie isn’t a statement about good or evil, and the parents of the shooter are in no way trying to defend what their boy did. They are as shocked and horrified as anyone, the difference being that everyone wants to blame them in some capacity for their son’s actions. Each in their own way, the parents attempt to find common ground, tell stories about their lost children, and make some sense of everything that’s happened, which is an impossible exercise. There are discussions of chemical predispositions to violence and behavior learned from too much time in the internet’s darker corners. They talk about whether there were true signs that things might go from bad to worse, the impact of bullying, and whether the shooter’s parents have the right to mourn in the same way all the other grieving parents do.

Sweet stories about these two boys are told, all underscoring the deep tragedy of the situation. The emotions are all over the place, but for the most part, the finger-pointing is kept to a minimum. And by the end, well, I don’t believe anyone is healed, but they seem at least to see a clear path to healing and maybe even forgiveness. Kranz’s direction is observational without being intrusive, and the resulting work, not surprisingly, sometimes feels like a filmed play but almost more claustrophobic. As good as every actor is, Plimpton was the real standout to me, as the one person of the four who is likely the least convinced in the beginning that this meeting is a good idea. But by the end, she is perhaps the most altered by it. Mass is a difficult and emotionally exhausting watch, but it’s also a rousing testament to those among us who seek to find meaning in even the worst moments of our lives.

Mass is now in theaters.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.