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Talk therapy

In Mass, parents of a school shooting victim meet with the parents of the shooter

A scene from Mass. Bleecker Street

Talk therapy

The heart of the film Mass, released in theaters Friday, takes place in a small-town Episcopal church—mostly in a plain meeting room with children’s tissue-paper projects taped to the window. Piano melodies play from the nearby sanctuary. A cross hangs on an otherwise blank wall. Four characters gradually arrive and talk awkwardly around the solitary table. It feels more like the setting for a play than a film.

The sparse backdrop allows viewers to engage fully with the human drama writer-director Fran Kranz created around the table. Tragedy has thrust two middle-aged couples together. Not until 35 minutes into the film do we hear why. One of the women, Gail (Martha Plimpton) says to the other couple: “Why do I want to know about your son? Because he killed mine.”

This is no upbeat family movie. Its themes are difficult and painful and include brief swearing (the film is rated PG-13). The gut-wrenching subject matter, handled with top-notch acting, directing, and a solid script, makes it worth watching and discussing.

Years earlier, the son of Richard (Reed Birney) and Linda (Ann Dowd), went on a mass school shooting spree, killing, among others, the son of Gail and Jay (Jason Isaacs). A mediator has arranged this meeting for the four to talk by themselves. Each is still struggling to make sense of what happened.

The interplay between them is believable. They address topics most of us would rather avoid, yet may contemplate whenever a school shooting occurs. The parents describe feelings and thoughts fluctuating between explanations, defensiveness, disbelief, questions, and memories. Camera shots are simple, mostly focusing on the troubled faces of the two couples. No flashbacks occur. The whole story emerges through powerful dialogue.

Each character emotes differently. Although Gail says the least, she hits the crux of every point quickly, and her attitude changes over the course of the movie. Her husband, Jay, keeps reminding her they’re not there to interrogate or be vindictive, but he’s the one whose self-control cracks when he says to the parents of the boy who murdered theirs: “We decided against litigation. But we want to see you in pain. We want to see you punished. We want to see you hurt.”

Richard pleads guilty, blaming himself for his son’s actions, yet not knowing quite what he’s blaming himself for: “I regret everything. The worst outcome imaginable happened. Any change I made could have resulted in a different outcome. I regret everything.” And his wife, Linda, an introspective, hurting, and obviously loving mother, agonizes over how her sweet baby boy grew to be a murderer.

Seeing the couples process suffering with no easy answers compels viewers to put themselves in these parents’ place. Despite no definitive conclusions, several surprise turns prove this distressing meeting was worthwhile. One of those surprises alludes to—but sadly does not explore—the source of true hope and healing.

Sharon Dierberger

Sharon is a senior writer for WORLD. She is a World Journalism Institute and Northwestern University graduate and holds two master’s degrees. She has served as university teacher, businesswoman, clinical exercise physiologist, homeschooling mom, and Division 1 athlete. Sharon resides in Stillwater, Minn., with her husband, Bill.


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