Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton offer ‘searing emotion’ in parental drama Mass (Image: Ryan Jackson-Healy/Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

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It’s a wonder that Mass is a directorial debut.

Despite his history as an actor in the industry, first-time feature director Fran Kranz has crafted a beautifully observed examination of a devastating tragedy, grief, and the ability to move on after the unforgivable.

Having lost their teenage son in a horrific school shooting, Jay (Jason Isaacs) and Gail (Martha Plimpton) travel to a church for a meeting with Richard (Reed Birney) and Linda (Ann Dowd) – the estranged parents of the teen who murdered their son.

As the two sets of parents sit down to attempt to find a way to move forward with their respective grief, confusion, and guilt, just how do you find your way back from such a nightmare?

Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton appear as grieving parents in Mass by director Fran Kranz
(Image: Ryan Jackson-Healy/Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

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Opening with a distant observance of the preparations for the meeting at the church through long shots of awkward staff manoeuvres, Kranz takes a methodical approach to align the pieces together for his chamber piece.

Once the stage is set for the real drama to ensue, including with the anxious wait for Jay and Gail, the whole conflict then exists entirely within one room across a single table.

Sitting back for all four of his lead performers to work some weighty material, Kranz’s script also vividly paints the characters and events that are off-camera, immersing us in a tragedy from a distance and with scarred memories for the four leads.

Ann Dowd and Reed Birne play troubled parents in Fran Kranz's drama film Mass
(Image: Ryan Jackson-Healy/Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Jason Isaacs has never been better as the more overtly political Jay who tries to use defiant action to make a difference following his son’s death, while the excellent Martha Plimpton’s Gail is full of growing rage and desperation to understand why her boy was taken from her and these emotions radiate from Plimpton.

Meanwhile, stage actor Reed Birney offers the more defiant parent in the form of the awkward and frustrated Richard, who is clearly full of his own resentments.

However, it is The Handmaid’s Tale star Ann Dowd who is perhaps the most astounding of the quartet of stars, offering a woman carrying the weight of her son’s actions and yearning to make sense of her continued love for him – also trying to understand when and where it all went wrong for her family.

Ann Dowd delivers grief in Fran Kranz's drama Mass
(Image: Ryan Jackson-Healy/Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

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As the conversation turns ever more fraught between the four parents, the cinematography from Ryan Jackson-Healy moves from clinical observance to a similarly blurred and agitated state.

Featuring scenes of rage, uncompromising honesty, and the possibility of redemption, Mass builds to a place of unrelenting sadness but also catharsis. It is bleak viewing but one that will linger long in the memory and demonstrates the capacity for human strength.

It can only leave you wondering what Kranz will pull off next.

Verdict

Mass is a powerful chamber piece that blisters with searing emotion thanks to deft direction and writing from Fran Kranz and devastating performances from  Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton, Reed Birney, and – most of all – Ann Dowd.

Mass premiered at Sundance Film Festival 2021 but does not currently have a UK release date.