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Martha Plimpton, left, in a scene from Mass.Courtesy of MK2 | MILE END

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  • Mass
  • Written and directed by Fran Kranz
  • Starring Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton, Ann Dowd and Reed Birney
  • Classification PG; 110 minutes
  • Available in select theatres starting Oct. 15

When Fran Kranz’s drama Mass premiered at this past January’s all-virtual Sundance Film Festival, the hype was, simply, ridiculous. Without in-person postscreening interaction to perhaps temper the film’s reception, the high-praise tweets started to flood the system all at once, each missive competing to outpraise the other. On the one hand, I get it: this past winter sucked for moviegoers (and everyone), so if a nicely acted little indie drama comes along out of nowhere, sure, let’s celebrate it. But the reaction also extended the truth of a Sundance maxim – the thin mountain in Park City, Utah, air tends to affect one’s judgment – to the online-only era.

So, several months and half a pandemic later: Does Mass work outside the environs of an on-edge film festival scene? Yes and no.

Kranz’s directorial debut is an extremely stage-y work – which, shockingly, is not adapted from a stage play – about two sets of parents working through extraordinary levels of anguish. On the one side are Jay (Jason Isaacs) and Gail (Martha Plimpton), whose teenage son was killed in a school shooting. On the other are Linda (Ann Dowd) and Richard (Reed Birney), whose teenage son was the shooter. The two families have gathered for a form of reconciliation, if that can be the word, in the drab meeting room of a local church.

Ostensibly, this is all the set-up needed to deliver an emotionally devastating drama that asks provocative questions about the nature of parenting, forgiveness and culpability. But Kranz’s screenplay, while initially sly in revealing the exact reasons why these families have been summoned, merely plops the Big Theme of “grief” down, like an decorative ornament in a church basement, and lets it sit there for an hour and a half.

The first-time filmmaker, best known for his twitchy comic-relief performances in various Joss Whedon projects (Dollhouse, Cabin in the Woods, Much Ado About Nothing), assembles a tremendous amount of talent here. Isaacs, Plimpton, Dowd and Birney are all utterly committed to the script, and if forced to pick a MVP, I suppose Birney would come out slightly on top as a father who must forever regret his lack of involvement. Yet Kranz can’t quite figure out a way to make his characters’ collective misery cinematically interesting. This is a serious movie, but not a searing one.

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a Critic’s Pick designation across all coverage.

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