Hannah Peterson’s directorial debut, The Graduates, begins a year after the end of the “before,” a definitive “conclusion of youth” event that’s alluded to, but never described in much detail. Genevieve (Mina Sundwall) is drifting through her senior year, grating against time as it flows toward the one-year mark of her boyfriend Tyler’s death, trying to find hope in a future that feels so foreclosed by the past. It’s soon revealed that a shooting in Genevieve’s school claimed Tyler’s life, along with the lives of five others.
At the outset of the film, the brouhaha has ended, there are no media parades. Public attention has moved elsewhere, yet the absence of the schoolmates has only deepened. The scars of the horrific event are evident in the newly-installed metal detectors at the school doors, and a memorial adorned with “NEVER AGAIN”s that continues to grow in a pregnancy of grief. Tyler’s good friend, Ben (Alex R. Hibbert), transferred schools, and then dropped out entirely. Tyler’s father (John Cho), the school basketball coach, is paining himself to stay in the Utah town, away from his wife and daughter, who have now moved to Houston; he’s clearly hoping to remain close to his deceased son by seeing his classmates through to their walk across the graduation stage.
The Graduates broaches the long-term aftermath of horror with a gentle affection that never veers into sentimentalist melancholy. This is in large part due to the strength of Mina Sundwall’s excellent performance of a teenager in grief, one that acts as a center of gravity for the orbits’ of the rest of the casts’ more uneven moments, and one that is both restrained, honest, and totally convincing of the subtlety of her pain. After all, The Graduates is not a film expressed in explicit language; it’s a film about the impossibilities of communication, especially when faced with a purgatorial trauma of unfathomable depths. This is a theme throughout: Genevieve tells her mother that she is able to feel a sense of safety because her and her friends don’t talk about what happened.
Peterson doesn’t talk about what happened either, which plays to her film’s strength. Ultimately, this film is about grief and its horror, rather than abject horror itself, something that has been reiterated in different filmic forms forever, and something that was tackled in the same context in the form of Gus Van Sant’s 2003 film Elephant. Peterson’s film, however, is completely opposite in focus from Van Sant’s, and is an evident counter against the more exploitative (and likely damaging) media coverage of school shootings that spreads immediately after their occurrence, only to hopscotch to the next tragedy when it inevitably arrives.
This is to say: when dealing with such sensitive subject matter, there is always the risk of feeling a sense of borrowed exploitation, but Peterson tackles such risk with a high degree of self-awareness. That said, this self-awareness is not necessarily always to the film’s benefit, as the grief-inciting violence central to the film’s off-screen history is treated more like emotional infrastructure than a locus of pain. Peterson’s decision not to divulge the details of the shooting, or the shooter, or any such tabloidization, shows a necessary gentility in dealing with this subject. But, at the same time, her inability to interrogate the more realistic ramifications beyond grief, such as post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse, shows a certain myopia that leaves the viewer wondering why the decision was made to center the film on a shooting at all.
Without prompting or explicit reference, viewers of The Graduates could just as well infer that the student deaths were a result of drug overdose or reckless driving, and as a result, has there’s an air of tackling contemporary subject matter with form and style borrowed deeply from the past. By virtue of the emotional weight of its context, Peterson is able to let her film chug along, but only just. More accurately, The Graduates is forced along by a sense of temporal density, one that takes the space of a more incisive interrogation of the fallout of these events. Remember, thought-provoking ideas are also a form of provocation; here, the world of the film is one that exists so wholly in the forefront of human consciousness, and yet somehow, it feels as though Peterson is barely able to let us in at all.
Ultimately, The Graduates is a strong debut about the incommunicability of grief and pain, and the sea of memories that we, as people, must wade through to anchor ourselves in a world of words. Unfortunately, it feels as though Peterson’s film struggles to anchor itself in a visual language, and a spoken one, that is able to fulfill such an ambition. Still, there’s enough of an emotional commitment here to understanding its subjects that suggests Peterson may have much more to say in the future.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 23.5.
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