a still from The Graduates
ManOfTheCenturyMovie Film ‘The Graduates’ review: Restrained drama follows life after a devastating school shooting

‘The Graduates’ review: Restrained drama follows life after a devastating school shooting

a still from The Graduates

Even a year later, the wall filled with good wishes (posters saying “we can overcome,” cards telling us to “always remember”) still stands. Sometimes, a new object is even added, a new reminder of a wound that cannot heal. When Hannah Peterson’s understated but impactful directorial debut “The Graduates” opens, the denizens of an anonymous small-town high school have kept their altar. It’s all they can do in the wake of a high school shooting that left six teenagers dead and forever scarred those they left behind.

The details of that shooting are never fully disclosed, just one of many graceful choices Peterson makes for his feature debut. Instead, Peterson’s film speaks of the world that exists after a terrible crime, not the one before, not the one during, certainly not the one that provoked it. In this world, there are only survivors, and they’ve all been chasing different versions of what “normal” feels like after the worst possible thing has happened. (Note: The film is a wonderful companion piece to Megan Park’s SXSW winner “The Fallout,” though both filmmakers approach similar material with different, equally vivid points of view.)

Mostly, there’s an amazing Mina Sundwall, cast here as soon-to-graduate Genevieve Sr., who lost her boyfriend Tyler in the shooting. And while Tyler (Daniel Kim), whom we soon learn through shared memories and a lot of awkward iPhone videos (which Gen watches with almost religious fervor), was always up for a joke, he loved the chicken tenders (to taste, a extreme degree), and wholeheartedly believed in his delightful fiancée.

But Tyler isn’t just leaving Genevieve behind: There’s also his grieving dad John (a heartbreaking John Cho), who still coaches the high school boys’ basketball team because being around those kids connects him to their murdered teammate. , and his best friend Ben (Moonlight star Alex Hibbert), who fled town after the shooting and only recently returned. Each of Tyler’s bereaved mourns him in different ways, unable to process their lives without him (like Gen, Ben often uses his phone to connect with Tyler, calling the still-working number to leave voicemail messages, a detail that pays off enormously in one of the film’s final scenes).

And life certainly looks different. There are metal detectors at school entrances, repeated requests to “stay safe” from still-affected teachers, and a distinct lack of interest in what the future may hold. Genevieve, a talented photographer, is looking to take a gap year because she didn’t get into any college, Ben has dropped out altogether, and John refuses to move to Houston to be with his partner and her glamorous daughter. No one can move forward, but living in the past is just too painful.

Despite such heavy material, Peterson still finds moments of levity, even joy, for his characters. Ben and Gen come alive when they’re with their friends, exchanging stories about Tyler and growing closer to a complicated bond of a different kind, while John’s fixation with the basketball team often seems like the only thing keeping him afloat. But even these people, who have suffered the same tragedy and even mourn the same person, often fail to connect with each other. When Gen’s mother (the always welcome Maria Dizzia) suggests she talk to someone who understands what she’s going through, she snaps: Who could possibly do you understand what is going on?

It is in this apparent impasse that Peterson’s film blossoms. Peterson, who has been mentored by both Chloé Zhao and Sean Baker (Zhao is also a producer on the film), clearly has a passion for reporting, if not True life, stories that Touch painfully, almost painfully real. The rhythms and movements of “The Graduates” mirror those of life: there are no grand gestures here, no sudden revelations, no massive changes. Instead the film and its characters must find space and hope in everyday life. (Peterson also edits the film, which is another thing she’s good at.)

Peterson, who shared the film’s press releases that she was partially inspired to make the film after losing a brother to suicide, clearly comes from a place of great love for both survivors and those we’ve lost, but also a place of deep pain, and an understanding of the form it takes. But that pain also shapes people, like Gen and Ben and John, who have to deal with that meaning, what it looks like, what it feels like. “The Graduates” is a compelling take on that in film form, a story that needs to be told, crafted by a director who we can only wish has many more stories to share.

Grade: B+

“The Graduates” premiered at the 2023 Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution in the United States.

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