Hannah Peterson's deft, heartbreaking debut film explores trauma through the perspectives of three people touched by tragedy
The terror and aftermath of school shootings have been a growing topic to explore and unfurl in American cinema. The Fallout and Mass, both released in 2021, are two recent examples that reckon with the devastating and sudden trauma. As calls for gun control grow in volume after every incident and the pertinent topic is repeatedly in the news cycle, cinematic representations of mass shootings will no doubt spark conversation. The Graduates is no exception.
Hannah Peterson's impressive debut is a moving drama chronicling the fallout of a school shooting, one year removed from the tragic accident. Appearing like a triptych of grief, it offers three interwoven perspectives in its ardent portrait of the extensiveness and all-encompassing nature of grief, following the death of Tyler: Genevive (Mina Sundwall), his girlfriend, Ben (Alex R. Hibbert), his best friend, and John, his father (John Cho).
We meet each of them as graduation is looming – an emotional time, anyway, but with a year since Tyler’s death they're all managing loss in different ways. Genevive lingers in the past and struggles to progress with college applications; Ben transferred schools but a year later he’s now dropped out and is back to the old neighbourhood; John is quietly continuing to coach the school’s basketball team while reliving the memories of his son.
The Graduates is kinetic as it jumps between the three viewpoints, but comes to a still to negotiate each character’s loss. The symbiotic pacing leaves emotionally taut scenes especially prevalent allowing the chemistry between Sundwall and Hibbert to blossom. Both offer exemplary performances as the teenage experience is refashioned: late-night drives aren’t thrilling, but melancholic. Bike rides result in debilitating panic attacks. In particular, Hibbert is a standout as he tackles intense survivor’s guilt – his vocal fluctuation and the pained sorrow in his voice is heartbreakingly vivid. While the teenage pair are centred, Cho is rather underused. His devastation is washed over as the ripples of grief observed in The Graduates focus much more on his younger counterparts.
Peterson was mentored by Sean Baker and Chloé Zhao and her debut occupies a similarly solemn atmosphere in forging a portrait of ordinary people broadcast on the big screen, asking for your full attention to be submitted to their deeply personal stories. It’s a deft piece of filmmaking that doesn't fall back on intrusive flashbacks to articulate the harrowing nature of insurmountable grief.
“Without memory, life is quite literally devoid of meaning,” one teacher shares mid-way through the film. In an excavation of memory, Genevive is repeatedly found developing film photos of the boy she longs for – Tyler’s image, reproduced over and over, keeping him alive. The Graduates navigates these contradictory emotions delicately and as it builds to an uplifting concluding place, the happiness remanins tinged with despondency. Students prepare to bid farewell to classmates and teachers but they must first file through airport-like security checks with bag scans and metal detectors. It’s a piercing reminder of what today’s American youth today face when going to school. Void of emotional exploitation, Peterson’s film is a quiet drama that is searingly powerful.
The Graduates was screened as part of the 2023 Tribeca Film Festival. A UK release date is yet to be announced.Where to watch