THE STORY – Genevieve (Mina Sundwall) is up against an unsettling senior year as she faces the one-year mark of a tragic school shooting that took her boyfriend. What should be a time of growth, anticipation, and pride is marred with trauma and loss that feels like purgatory rather than progress. As she gets closer to graduation, decisions seem impotent. That feeling is collectively shared by her friend Ben (Alex R. Hibbert) who transferred schools, her mother (Maria Dizzia) and the school basketball coach (John Cho).
THE CAST – Mina Sundwall, Alex Hibbert, Yasmeen Fletcher, Ewan Manley, John Cho, Maria Dizzia & Kelly O’Sullivan
THE TEAM – Hannah Peterson (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 87 Minutes
Writer-director Hannah Peterson’s feature debut, “The Graduates,” is one of those small films that packs a heavy punch. Executive produced by Chloé Zhao, the film presents a very contemporary story about the highs and lows of high school, but also how those highs and lows are very different in the American school system. Fears of a school shooting are every day, and having experienced one, the students in Peterson’s film are not only grieving but also have to think of colleges and their futures. In a fast, shifting news cycle, the impact of a school shooting lasts longer than its headline on the front pages, and for those who have experienced that trauma, what are their lives like when the news cycle moves on?
“The Graduates” opens with a chilling silence. The camera fills the screen with images of an empty classroom and a deserted hallway. Then, a woman walks alone towards a memorial on a wall; the soles of her shoes create a drowning echo with every step. It’s been one year since six students were killed in a shooting, and the school is still coping with that loss. The film meditates on this collective grief by shifting between two characters: Genevieve (Mina Sundwall) and the school’s basketball coach (John Cho). Both lost Tyler (Daniel Kim), the boyfriend of the former and son of the latter. Genevieve’s grief is of the most focus, but we never feel that the father’s loss is less substantial.
Peterson’s grounded script takes a look at how students deal with such a traumatic event. Genevieve and other soon-to-be high school graduates have to think of their future while also struggling to move on from the past. “Memory is an image of the past coming into focus,” one teacher says, and it’s important to Genevieve and her friends to keep the memory of Tyler alive. However, thinking about college and their futures comes with survivor’s guilt. They have to wrestle with the feeling that any pondering on their dreams or celebration of achievements is somehow a stain on Tyler’s memory. Tyler’s friend, Ben (“Moonlight’s” Alex R. Hibbert), gave up basketball, a sport he loves because Tyler can no longer play. Tyler’s father stayed behind to keep coaching his son’s basketball team, despite his wife and young daughter moving away to Huston. Moving on means living, and the film contemplates the very complicated feelings that come with that.
“The Graduates” is a film about healing. Throughout the film, the characters learn to talk about their grief and heal together, but also individually. The film looks at the loneliness that is felt from such a life-altering experience, even though the people closest to them are grappling with the same loss. Genevieve moves from seeking comfort by wearing Tyler’s sweatshirt to the arms of her mother to, finally, her friends. The film is a healing process that’s beautiful to watch unfold, with a young cast that delivers phenomenal and affecting performances. They carry so much more on their souls than most teens, and you feel that weight. Peterson’s script doesn’t neglect to balance the experience of trauma with the experience of just being a teen. Despite the pain, Genevieve, Ben, and their friends still get carefree moments to have fun, go to parties, and eat at their favorite burger joint.
The Graduates is a quiet, heartwrenching journey of healing that’s also the discovery and wounded adjustment to a new normal and a journey to rebuilding a sense of self. Overcoming a school shooting is not as simple as just implementing bag checks or installing metal detectors, and the film acts as a commentary on how America’s children will never truly know safety in school walls until real changes come.