As we all know, this year’s Sundance Film Festival started tonight.
To me, Sundance has always signified the official start of a new cinematic year. Not only is it the first of the major festivals but it’s also when we first learn about the films that we’ll be looking forward to seeing all year. It seems like every year, there’s at least one successful (or nearly successful) Oscar campaign that gets it start at Sundance. Last year, for instance, Minari took Sundance by storm and it was able to ride that momentum all the way to a Best Picture nomination. Before that, nominees like Manchester By The Sea and Brooklyn got their starts at Sundance.
And, even if their films weren’t nominated for best picture, some of the most important filmmakers of the past few decades got their first exposure at Sundance. The Coen Brothers first won notice with Blood Simple. Years later, Quentin Tarantino took the festival by storm with Reservoir Dogs. Though an argument can be made that Sundance is now just as corporate as the Hollywood system to which it’s supposed to providing an alternative, one can’t deny the importance of the Festival.
For the next few days, I’m going to taking a look at a few films that made their initial splash at Sundance. Some of these films went on to become award winners and some did not. But they’re all worth your attention, one way or another.
Take for instance, Mass.
The first directorial effort of actor Fran Kranz (you may remember him as the clever and genre-savvy stoner from The Cabin In The Woods), Mass made its debut at least year’s Sundance Film Festival. It was one of the more critically acclaimed films of the festival and, in a perfect world, it would currently be an Oscar front runner. And who knows? There’s always a chance that Mass could pick up a nomination or two. Ann Dowd is apparently running a very energetic campaign for Best Supporting Actress and she’s said to be well-liked in the industry. It’s probably a bit too much to expect the film to be nominated for Best Picture, though it certainly deserves some consideration. It’s perhaps a bit too low-key for a year that’s full of bombast and big emotional moments. It’s a film that raises interesting questions but refuses to provide easy answers. In short, it’s the type of film that, ten years from now, people will watch it and say, “How did this not get nominated?” Even if it’s not a Sundance film that’s destined for the Oscars, it is a Sundance film that will be remembered for heralding the arrival of a vibrant new directorial talent.
Playing out in almost real time, Mass is a film about two couples having a very emotional conversation. Richard (Reed Birney) and Linda (Ann Dowd) are the parents of Hayden. Jay (Jason Isaacs) and Gail (Martha Plimpton) are the parents of Evan. Hayden and Evan went to the same high school. Years ago, Evan was killed in a school shooting. Hayden was the shooter. After killing ten students, Hayden killed himself.
The two couples are meeting in a room in the back of a church. It’s a part of therapy. They meet and they talk about their children and the events that led to the shooting. Jay and Gail demand answers. Richard and Linda can’t provide them. At first, Gail is angry and Jay is the one who tries to keep things civil but, as the conversation continues, it becomes obvious that Jay is in fact angrier than Gail. Even when Richard and Linda express obviously sincere remorse for what Hayden did, Jay cannot accept it because, in a way, he needs them to be evil or ignorant or both. Linda and Richard struggles to reconcile their love for their son with their hatred over what he did. Gail and Jay feel that their son was unfairly taken from them and they’re right. Richard and Linda feel that they’re being blamed for something they couldn’t control and they’re also right. There are no easy villains or heroes in this film. Instead, there are just four unique and interesting characters, all trying to understand something that makes no sense.
Almost everything we learn about the characters comes from listening to them speak. Almost the entire film takes place in that one room. By the end of the film, not a single character is who you originally believed them to be. Jay’s search for meaning has led to him becoming a political activist. He insists that there has to be some sort of identifiable reason to explain why his son is dead, even though he secretly realizes that there isn’t. Gail, who starts out as the angriest person in the room, reveals herself to be the most empathetic. At the start of the film, Jay accuses Richard of not having any emotions but, by the end, we see that Richard’s emotions are very real. Finally, Linda seems meek but quickly reveals herself to be perhaps the strongest and most honest person in the room.
It may sound a bit stagey, this film that takes place in one room and which is basically just four characters having a conversation. But director Fran Kranz does a wonderful job keeping the story moving and the conversation within the room never seems to drag. Indeed, the room itself is almost as fascinating as any of the people inside of it. At the start the film, we watch two church employees and social worker going out of their way to make the room as safe and non-confrontational as possible. However, their efforts have the opposite effect. The room is so friendly that it makes it impossible not to compare its pleasantness with the issues being discussed behind the room’s closed doors. The room itself tries so hard to avoid confrontation that it has the opposite effect.
In the end, the film suggests that there are no neat answers. Even though the two couples come to an understanding and even a sort of peace, there’s no guarantee that peace will last more than a day. Indeed, as soon as they leave the room, their initial awkwardness returns, a reminder that we can understand pain but we can’t necessarily vanquish it. It’s not a film about easy answers but there’s something liberating about the film’s willingness to acknowledge that life can be difficult but that life also goes on.
The film is a masterclass of good acting, with Dowd and Isaacs getting the biggest dramatic moments while Birney and Plimpton offer fantastic support. In a perfect Oscar world, all four of them would be nominated and so would the film itself. Unfortunately, one of the lessons of Mass is that there is no such thing as a perfect world.
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