‘The Graduates’ Review: Restrained Drama Follows Life After a Shattering School Shooting

Even one year later, the wall filled with good wishes (posters reading “we can overcome,” cards telling us to “always remember”) still stands. Sometimes, a new item is even added to it, a fresh remembrance of a wound that cannot heal. When Hannah Peterson’s restrained yet enormously affecting feature directorial debut “The Graduates” opens, the inhabitants of an unnamed, small-town high school have maintained their altar. It’s all they can do in the wake of a high school shooting that left six teens dead, and forever scarred those they left behind.

The details of that shooting are never fully divulged, just one of many graceful choices Peterson adopts for her first feature. Instead, Peterson’s film is about the world that exists after a terrible crime, not the one before, not the one during, certainly not the one that caused it. In this world, there are only survivors, and they’ve all pursued different versions of what “normal” feels like after the worst possible thing has happened. (Of note: the film makes for a wonderful companion piece to Megan Park’s SXSW winner “The Fallout,” though both filmmakers approach similar material with different, just as vivid viewpoints.)

Mostly, there’s an extraordinary Mina Sundwall, cast here as soon-to-be-graduated-senior Genevieve, who lost her boyfriend Tyler in the shooting. And while Tyler (Daniel Kim), who we soon learn through shared memories and plenty of goofy iPhone videos (which Gen watches with almost religious fervor), was always ready with a joke, adored chicken tenders (to like, an extreme degree), and believed whole-heartedly in his delightful girlfriend.

But Tyler didn’t just leave behind Genevieve: there’s also his grief-stricken dad John (a heartbreaking John Cho), who still coaches the high school’s boys’ basketball team because being with those boys connects him to their murdered teammate, and his best friend Ben (“Moonlight” star Alex Hibbert), who fled town after the shooting and has only recently returned. Each of Tyler’s bereaved mourns him in different ways, unable to process their lives without him (like Gen, Ben often uses his phone to connect with Tyler, calling the still-working number to leave voicemail messages, a detail that pays off enormously in one of the film’s final scenes).

And life certainly does look and feel different. There are the metal detectors at the entrances of the school, repeated requests to “be safe” from still-stricken teachers, and a distinct lack of interest in what the future might hold. Genevieve, a talented photographer, is looking to take a gap year because she didn’t get into any colleges, Ben has fully dropped out, and John refuses to move to Houston to be with his partner and her charming daughter. No one can move forward, but living in the past is simply too painful.

Despite such heavy material, Peterson still finds moments of lightness, even joy, for her characters. Ben and Gen spark to life when they’re with their pals, trading stories about Tyler and edging closer to a complicated bond of a different kind, while John’s fixation on the basketball team often seems like the only thing keeping him afloat. But even these people, who have suffered the same tragedy and even mourn the same person, are often unable to connect with each other. When Gen’s mother (the always-welcome Maria Dizzia) suggests she talk to someone who understands what she’s going through, she snaps: Who could possibly understand what she’s going through?

It’s at this apparent impasse where Peterson’s film blossoms. Peterson, who has been mentored by both Chloé Zhao and Sean Baker (Zhao also serves as a producer on the film), clearly has a passion for chronicling, if not real life, stories that feel achingly, almost painfully real. The rhythms and movements of “The Graduates” mirror those of life — there are no grand gestures here, no sudden revelations, no massive shifts. Instead, the film and its characters have to find space and hope in the everyday. (Peterson also edits the film, yet another thing she’s good at.)

Peterson, who shared the film’s press notes that she was partially inspired to make the film after she lost a brother to suicide, clearly comes from a place of great love for both survivors and those we lost, but also a place of profound pain, and an understanding of the shape that takes. But that pain also shapes people, like Gen, Ben, and John, who must reckon with that means, what it looks like, what it feels like. “The Graduates” is a compelling version of that in film form, a story that needs to be told, made by a filmmaker who we can only hope has many more tales to share.

Grade: B+

“The Graduates” premiered at the 2023 Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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