Watching Reed Birney, Ann Dowd, Jason Isaacs, and Martha Plimpton is on par with taking a masterclass on acting as the four actors deliver unforgettable performances that highlight the complexity of human behavior. A school shooting draws two sets of devastated parents together to work out feelings of grief, anger, and accountability. The term “closure” feels extraneous in this situation as the gripping film elicits empathy for both couples as the church setting becomes the ideal vantage point.

Never once does “Mass” give the impression that you are watching a staged play despite the one-room setting and small cast. There is no time to process incidental details as you hang on to every word delivered by the four actors as a barrage of emotions fills the screen.

In the back room of a modest Episcopal church, Gail (Martha Plimpton) and her husband Jay (Jason Isaacs) meet with Linda (Ann Dowd) and Richard (Reed Birney), all grieving parents who lost a son in a school shooting. Their ordeals however are dissimilar.

At first, their exchanges are civil. Jay begins with an assertive, “Thank you for agreeing to meet us” prompting Linda to respond cautiously, “Your welcome.” There are awkward moments of silence as the four adults sit at a small round table not sure how to proceed knowing the atmosphere could turn volatile. Both parties are aware of the meeting’s delicate nature, six years in the making, which has been made possible by the length of time that has passed since the tragedy. Even so, the scars remain as if the event happened yesterday.

Kranz handles the scenario like a high-stakes poker game. The couples appear as opponents trying to figure out the other’s hand. However, there are no winners in this game of life, revealed when all the cards are on the table. Gail and Jay’s son Evan was killed in the school shooting carried out by Linda and Richard’s son Hayden who then took his own life. Let that sink in.

“Mass” gives each actor a moment to claim the spotlight. Plimpton is the last to unload an emotional release, but it happens at a time when the audience comes to terms that her character Gail is still unable to move forward, making it one of the film’s most powerful scenes. Isaacs is tasked with the most complex role as he unwittingly becomes the moderator, “We are not here to attack you” he states as Dowd looks on with an agonizing gaze that conveys remorse. Birney remains closed off, concealing his emotions. Judging by his facial expressions, Richard is dealing with repressed anger until finally, he blurts out “Why?!” when Gail states “I want to know everything about your son.” She then follows his question with, “Because he killed mine.”

The gripping film inspired by the Parkland shooting explores the aftermath of such a devastating tragedy with themes of forgiveness and reconciliation. Yes, the subject matter is tough especially for parents, but the script written by Kranz combined with the engrossing performances make “Mass” the must-see film of the year.

(4 stars)

Opens October 29 at the Angelika Film Center (Dallas) and the Angelika Film Center and Café (Plano). November 5th at the Grapevine Mills 30

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Joe Friar

Member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Latino Entertainment Journalists Association (LEJA), the Houston Film Critics Society, and a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic.

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