A Moving, Gentle Drama About Healing In The Wake Of Tragedy

School shootings continue to happen. It’s tragic, heartbreaking, and it often feels rather hopeless watching as things unfold, and the cycle of violence repeats. Far from being a film that capitalizes on the shock value of such a devastating event, The Graduates is an understated story that focuses on the aftermath — healing, mourning, and attempting to move forward are at the center of this character-driven narrative. Writer-director Hannah Peterson quietly and tenderly explores the complicated feelings at the center as grief and a sense of loss, and being lost, punctuate every scene. If there was ever a film to watch about mourning and learning to adjust to a new normal, it’s Peterson’s poignant masterpiece.

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The film is set a year after a school shooting, and thankfully doesn’t flash back to the events onscreen. Genevieve (Mina Sundwall) is still grieving the loss of her boyfriend Tyler (Daniel Kim), a victim of that fateful day, and her friends, including Ben (Alex R. Hibbert, Moonlight), who left to go to another school and is also still in mourning, leaving messages on Tyler’s voicemail, are also trying to move on in their own ways. As graduation approaches, Genevieve, Ben, and Tyler’s father (John Cho), the school’s basketball coach, are faced with a future they’re not ready for as they continue to heal.

The Graduates doesn’t build toward any particular conflict between its main characters. To be sure, their relationships are made complicated by the shooting, and Genevieve and Ben are especially affected by what happened, their interactions tainted by that fatal day. But it isn’t a film that heavily leans on any interpersonal drama to keep the story going. Rather, the film is a moving portrait of its characters’ everyday lives in the wake of a horrific tragedy. How the shooting affected them, their hesitation in how to move forward, and the potency of their feelings will evoke a visceral response.

So often, it’s the actual shooting that dominates the discussion, but The Graduates dares to look past the initial devastation to the impact it has on the students and teachers who either lived through it, or were affected by it personally. How do these students go on? How does the shooting color their life experiences as they move forward? Does their collective grief make things easier, or does it isolate them further? Peterson ponders the answers to these questions, intricately crafting a story that allows the characters — and by extension, us — the time and space to sit in their emotions without prodding them to forget about what happened so easily.

The film is grounded, avoiding sensationalism and empty indulgences. With a story as heavy as this one, there’s a risk of overdoing it, but The Graduates paces itself, a gradual buildup that never teeters one way or the other. The film is poetic in its collective sadness, embracing the struggle without ever exploiting its characters or the tragedy at its center. That’s a feat unto itself considering how easy it could have been to do as much. It’s a testament to Peterson’s filmmaking that the story is so evocative and gentle, rhythmic like waves lapping the shore.

It also helps that the high school students and their teachers are portrayed in a more realistic way, and are not exaggerated for the sake of the story. Mina Sundwall is riveting as Genevieve. The actress carries her character’s grief and pain in her body language, her face flickering between one emotion and the next as she tries looking ahead to a future that doesn’t feel as exciting as it may have once been. Alex R. Hibbert is tremendous as Ben, and the actor conveys all of his guilt, heartbreak, and aimlessness so thoughtfully. John Cho is also a standout, and he layers his performance with a somberness that doesn’t abate, but transforms over the course of the film.

The Graduates is a powerful glimpse into the lives of school shooting survivors. As the news cycle moves on, and next to nothing is done to prevent the violence, it’s the faculty, students, and their parents who have to live with what happened. Peterson and her filmmaking team do an exquisite job of stepping into their lives in the aftermath, while reckoning with all that it means to do so.

The Graduates premiered at the 2023 Tribeca Festival. The film is 87 minutes long and is not yet rated.

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