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'Mass' is 2021's best picture — even if you've never heard of it

A view of an Oscar statue outside the 84th Annual Academy Awards show at the Hollywood and Highland Center in Los Angeles on February 26, 2012. (Lionel Hahn/Abaca Press/TNS)

When Oscar nominations came out two weeks ago, there were plenty of deserving names missing.

Films like “Pig” and “Passing,” which would be worthy candidates for the award of best picture regardless of the competition, were overshadowed by showier, though not necessarily more deserving films like “Dune” and “Don’t Look Up”. 

But there was one omission so glaring that I didn’t have the space necessary to address it in my earlier column about the nominations — a film so powerful, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since the moment I saw it:


Its subject matter, like its title, is deceptively simple.

The film opens on a church in a small town as preparations are being made for a meeting to be held in a room within it. There is little mention of who the two groups are, a lack of detail that builds tension and anxiety among viewers.

Eventually, two couples arrive and speak to each other. This is when it’s revealed that these two couples are the parents of children who died in a mass shooting at the kids’ school. One set, Gail (Martha Plimpton) and Jay (Jason Isaacs), are the parents of one of the victims, while the other, Linda (Ann Dowd) and Richard (Reed Birney), are the parents of the shooter.

The resulting conversation is an incredibly difficult one, taxing for both the parents on screen and the viewer who spends most of the film’s runtime listening to them.

Linda begins the proceedings by trying to understand more about the lives of the boy their son had killed that day, asking questions of the couple in front of her that they are increasingly less able to answer as the thought of their lost son overwhelms them. 

Each of the four actors the film is centered on delivers the performance of a lifetime. While they have enigmatic chemistry as couples and, indeed, as an entire group, they are also given a chance to shine individually through passionate monologues. Everything from their body language and facial expressions to the intonation of their voices captures raw emotion to a degree that I’ve rarely ever seen put to film. 

Martha Plimpton and Ann Dowd showcase unparalleled acting talent in their portrayals of the two mothers.

Plimpton’s initial silence turns into anger as she struggles to comprehend how the son of Dowd’s character could commit such a heinous act. Dowd becomes increasingly distressed as she tries desperately to assure the couple across from her that she could have never seen this coming and did everything she could to raise her son well. 

The restraints of having the actors seated across from one another in the same room for the majority of the film’s runtime allows for tremendous directorial creativity. Quick edits between the parents while they’re fervently asking each other questions are sandwiched between long, steady shots focusing on a character’s face to heighten a scene’s emotional impact. And by putting other objects in the room on camera, the director helps further immerse the viewer into the scene at hand.  

This dynamic delivers an incredibly nuanced view on the impact of school shootings, as well as providing a bone-chilling portrait of the many stages of grief. Both of these are facilitated by the painstakingly crafted screenplay of writer-director Fran Kranz. 

The script, which Kranz wrote after years of studying similar situations and how the families of those involved reacted to them, leaves ample room for viewers to think about the role of parents in the development of their children. The movie highlights how there may have been opportunities for Dowd's and Birney’s characters to notice concerning trends in their child’s life, but it also highlights the difficulty of and risks associated with acting on this information.

The mark of a quality film, for me, is its ability to elicit an emotional reaction from the viewer. A movie is nothing if it can’t make you feel something. 

The beauty of “Mass” lies in its humanity. It explores the deepest evils of humanity and attempts, likely in vain, to make up for them. The pain of the characters on screen becomes your own, and you too begin to search for explanations and answers that they’ll never have. 

Despite my best attempts at it, I can’t even come close to describing the emotional toll this film can take on you. After I finished watching, all I could do was sit in front of my television screen — shocked. I had trouble sleeping that night. It was devastating.

I’m stunned the Academy didn’t see fit to award “Mass” any Oscar nominations. Acting wins for Plimpton, Dowd, Isaacs and Birney could have all been justified. Kranz’s screenplay and directorial work were also worthy of nominations. A lack of quality wasn’t the issue here — there was an abundance of it. 

Perhaps the Academy stayed away from it because it wasn’t as flashy as other nominees. After all, it’s a structurally simple, character-based drama. Yet, even recently, the Academy has recognized such films. “Fences” was nominated for four awards, including best picture, in 2017, which earned Viola Davis a win for best supporting actress. 

Even a single Academy Award nomination could have catapulted “Mass” from critically acclaimed indie darling to must-see status. If only the Academy would’ve had the courage to give it one. 

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