Tragedy shapes us, for better or worse. The nature of the tragedy is different, but almost all of us go through it. For the teenagers and adults in The Graduates, the nature of the tragedy is a school shooting. The dead are mourned, while the survivors are attempting to go on, with no real understanding of how to do so. This Tribeca Film Festival offering is a big ask, but it’s not an unreasonable ask. The movie is keenly observed and never playing fast and loose with what t’s depicting.
The Graduates is very much a slice of life type of picture, just checking in on life after an unspeakable tragedy. The focus is entirely on how the characters are doing, and in doing so, how an entire community attempts to pick up the pieces. It’s an ambitious undertaking, especially within a 90 minute film that’s not heavy on plot. Luckily, it works, leaving a mark in the process.
It has been a year since a shooting in a high school left six students dead. Among the fallen was Tyler (Daniel Kim), the boyfriend of Genevieve (Mina Sundwall). Her time in school is coming to an end and she’s very much at a crossroads. In some moments, she’s fine. Others? Far from it. She’s planning on taking a year off after graduation, but even if she opts against it, her hopes to attend NYU depend on grades she currently doesn’t have. After all, what’s the point when life can be shattered in the blink of an eye? So, Gen just tries to exist, making time whenever possible to watch videos of her and Tyler, or even call his cell phone to leave a voicemail.
As we follow Gen, we also meet Ben (Alex R. Hibbert) who was close to both her and her boyfriend and opted to transferred schools. He’s returned to town and is bonding again with Gen. Her mom (Maria Dizzia) is also there, worried about the choices she may or may not be making. There’s also the basketball coach (John Cho), just as lost as the students, in a way I’ll leave for you to discover. In a way, they’re all still drifting, along with the town itself.
These performances are small and lived-in, making for a tapestry of different forms of grief. Mina Sundwall is best in show, though Alex R. Hibbert isn’t far behind. Both are at their best in quiet moments communicating with Tyler’s still active number. Those scenes are heartbreaking. John Cho is excellent as well, attempting to keep it all in, while just as broken as the teenagers. In addition to Maria Dizzia and Daniel Kim, the cast also includes Yasmeen Fletcher, Ewan Manley, Kelly O’Sullivan, and more.
Writer/director Hannah Peterson makes an observant debut here, never forcing emotions on you. While not quite a documentary-like approach, she lets characters and story come to her. The screenplay has no unnecessary conflicts, while her direction is all about realism. It pays dividends, too, quickly establishing Peterson as a filmmaker to watch.
The Graduates is a heavy film. It may be the heaviest work of fiction at Tribeca this year, but it succeeds because you quickly care about the characters. While it may not have the same power as something like Mass, it’s a different movie on a different wavelength. As long as you have some patience, this is a quietly rewarding flick.