Review by Sean Boelman
Gun violence in schools is worse than ever before, and as young artists are rising the ranks, they are creating their artistic responses to this epidemic. The Graduates is one of the best films about gun violence there has been in the era of school shootings — eschewing the traditionally shocking approach for something much more quiet and meditative, and inarguably much sadder.
Taking place over a year after a tragic school shooting, the movie follows the survivors of the tragedy as they attempt to continue on with their lives and adjust to their trauma. Peterson’s approach to the topic is fantastic and unique, because it lingers not on the event itself, but the aftermath — allowing it to feel much more authentic and less manipulative.
The pacing of the film is certainly slow, as it focuses on how these teenagers’ mundane lives — and in some instances, that of their parents — were fundamentally altered by this violent incident. However, it is poetic and beautiful in its approach. The dialogue may feel a bit stilted at first, but it soon becomes obvious that Peterson perfectly captured the feeling and personality of a clueless and grieving teenager.
There are certainly some moments in the movie in which the discussion pivots overtly to the epidemic of gun violence and the conditions in our society that have allowed this to become such a pervasive problem in our culture. However, the more pointedly poignant moments are the characters going through what should be a joyous event without those who were taken by the violence. For example, a scene of a basketball championship played in honor of one of their lost teammates is absolutely crushing.
With films that cast such a wide net with their ensemble, it can often be a challenge to have all of the characters feel fully fleshed out. While some of the characters’ arcs in The Graduates are more pronounced than others, Peterson succeeds in making each and every one feel like a real human being, and that’s all that this story calls for.
Peterson has also assembled a phenomenal cast of young actors for the movie. Lead actress Mina Sundwall is fantastic, as is supporting actor Alex R. Hibbert (Moonlight). And although his role is quite small in nature — probably only around 10 or 15 minutes worth of screen time in total — John Cho is exceptional here. He gets more than a few “supporting actor moment” speeches, but is just as powerful in his quiet moments of restrained sadness.
On a technical level, the film isn’t particularly flashy, opting for a lot of close-ups that maximize the movie’s ability to capture the profound levels of emotion in the actors’ expressions. The sound design is also very effective, particularly when it comes to the use of quiet and silence — as the lack of sound in some scenes is what makes them truly exceptional.
The Graduates is a truly stunning directorial debut — it’s no wonder that Chloe Zhaó put her support behind the film as an executive producer. Few movies have managed to capture the effects of violence on grief and anxiety as honestly as this film did, and for that, Hannah Peterson deserves massive kudos.
The Graduates screens at the 2023 Tribeca Festival, which runs June 7-18 in NYC and June 19 through July 2 online.