Mass Review: A parent’s journey

Note: “Mass” premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival and will be released in theaters on Friday, October 8.

You might be asking: Why is Psychopathy Is doing a movie review?

Because that movie is Mass, and Mass is a conversation between two sets of parents: the parents of a child who was killed, and the parents of the child who killed him. As a mother who parented a child with psychopathy, I wanted to know how Mass would reflect the experience of parents whose children hurt people.

Here is my verdict: If you can only see one movie for the rest of your life, make it Mass. Mass sticks with you for days and surprises you with insights and emotions long after you have watched it. If you are reading this review, you need to see Mass.

To say Mass is a unique movie would be an understatement. First of all, the meeting between the two sets of parents is bookended by interactions with some of the community members responsible for setting up and hosting this meeting. Before we ever get to meet either set of parents, we get a sense of just how much work has gone into arranging this meeting, something most stories skip over. In this simple act of setting up the room, Fran Kranz, who makes his writing and directing debut, draws us into the earnest, yet awkward manner in which well-meaning people who genuinely want to help actually act toward parents on either side of violence. No matter which side you are on, nobody knows how to relate to us once we become “that family.” Kranz captures the way the genuine desire to help is at odds with not knowing what you can actually do. After all, no amount of proper room set-up or carefully planned meetings can ever undo the violence already done.

When he was younger, my own child was at times both the victim of bullying and violence, and at others the perpetrator of those things. When your life is turned upside down by violence, no one knows how to act around you. Everyone is awkward and weird. This only adds to a parent’s sense of isolation and makes us feel even more defined by the violence. Mass gives us a visceral sense of what it is like to be technically a part of a community, yet be apart from that community. You feel the isolation of both sets of parents in the way no one can even bring themselves to put a name to what happened. It shows you the impact on parents when everyone around you considers this major aspect of your life to be unspeakable.

This might seem like such a small detail, but one of the worst things about being a parent like me is the isolation we all feel. No one knows how to be around us. Mass is the first example I can ever recall that portrays this. Before the main characters even enter the carefully prepared room, you get how much these parents are defined by the violence in their lives and how that ripples through their communities. I knew when I saw this one little detail I knew I was watching something spectacular with a perspective that was utterly unique to the screen.

Once the parents enter the room, this is where the real magic begins. Kranz’s writing and directing are phenomenal, giving you a sense of living in the moment with the characters rather than watching them. He takes you on four, simultaneous emotional journeys, all equally important, and allows the conversation to unfold naturally. I often feel that writers put lines in their characters’ mouths as simply the means to the next plot point, like they are checking off a bullet item in their outline. MASS is masterful in the way it allows the characters to simply have a conversation and allows that conversation to dictate what happens next. We really could have been in the room with real parents, rather than watching a scripted story. I will be greatly disappointed if Kranz is not on the short list for the Oscars for both his writing and directing.

I feel confident that Mass will resonate with other parents like me because, beyond my own experiences as a parent, I run a Facebook-based support group called Parents of Children with Conduct Disorder (PCCD). In the nearly seven years since I started this group I have communicated with thousands of parents across the globe, many of whose children perpetrate acts of violence the rest of you can only bring yourselves to call “unspeakable” or “unthinkable.” The parents in PCCD speak the unspeakable and think the unthinkable on a daily basis. I regularly work with parents of perpetrators (many of whom commit premeditated acts) and have dedicated my life to learning as much about this subject as I can.

My background and training are also in theatre, so I watched Mass through this lens, too. I have long thought the entertainment industry gets things completely wrong when it comes to telling the stories of the parents of perpetrators.

But Mass is, bar none, the most amazing piece of storytelling I have ever seen in my life. My husband and I not only want to watch Mass again, we want to own it so we can watch it again and again. First, Mass is factually correct. I don’t think it will spoil anything about the film to tell you that when someone is killed, the legal system gets involved. Mass brings in many real-life examples of the legal hurdles parents like me go through. It was such a relief to finally see that on screen. I saw the story of our families in the casual way various legal proceedings are mentioned in Mass; the years of lawyers and courts (and likely tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars spent in legal fees). No one ever stops to consider how these events impact the parents and families on either side of acts of violence committed by young people. No one until Kranz, that is. I felt like I could have been watching a typical conversation with any one of the parents from my support group. His script reflects the real-life way we talk about such things amongst ourselves.

But beyond this, Mass is also emotionally correct. It reflects what parents of children who hurt other people actually go through on an emotional level. I see what parents of violent children go through – the struggles they experience year after year – their emotional and character arcs over years, if you will. MASS gets our story right. It gets it so right it taught me new things about the work I do every day. MASS helped me to put a name to something I have been struggling to put into words for years, namely: the generosity of the parents of perpetrators.

Ann Dowd, as Linda, the mother of the shooter, brings such a generosity to her character, beyond what Kranz put in the script, that two days later I found myself whispering, “How did they know?” In the nearly seven years PCCD has a been around, I can count on two hands the times I’ve had to jump in and moderate something because the members are so generous with one another. Generous in a way I don’t think I could properly explain, but Mass shows and makes you feel. Before I saw Mass I thought of the parents in my group as simply being “wonderful with each other,” but Mass made me realize what I was really seeing: generosity.

In addition, Dowd’s performance healed something deep inside my core I didn’t even know was broken. The morning after I watched the movie I found myself suddenly in tears of gratitude out of nowhere. Parts of my own life that had previously felt like a burden had suddenly become a gift.

On a more technical level, Mass paints the picture of many things I, personally, have lived through. I have had to have the talk with a parent of a child my own child landed in the ER and nearly blinded in one eye as the result of a premeditated attack. The guilt, the shame, the horror, the grief, and the responsibility I felt were, to most of you, unimaginable. But Mass doesn’t just imagine it. Mass digs deep into that experience and takes us, expertly, through the emotions that come with your child harming another child. Even though I did nothing to hurt that other child myself, the things my son did will haunt me forever, a truth Mass does not shy away from.

Suffice to say, given my experience both personally and as a community leader, had Kranz gotten anything wrong from the parents’ perspective, I would know. But I kept being pulled deeper into the story because he got everything so absolutely right. I felt grounded in the reality on screen because it was grounded in reality.

But more than that, Mass has something to teach even someone with my depth of knowledge. It took me through the parents’ journey and made me see things I had not seen before. Even though I run a support group and should know this, MASS taught me just how vital it is for parents to have a space where they can talk about the horrible things that have happened to them; the things everyone else shies away from.  It taught me that simply having the space to have this conversation is everything.

On a personal level, I felt I went into the film as one person, and came out the other side a different person healed in a way I didn’t even know I needed until it happened. Mass is uncomfortable to watch at times, but also cathartic. In the end, Mass delivers moments of connection and sweetness and is a much-needed balm for the soul. I came away feeling hopeful about the future.

What we see on screen in Mass is so realistic, I can’t help but feel we are witnessing a new kind of storytelling. I don’t know how he does it, but Kranz manages to create the perfect blend of stage-play and film. I hope other writers and directors will study and emulate everything about Mass. It is the most intimate form of storytelling I have ever seen. I feel like I walked a thousand miles in all of these characters’ shoes. I felt like they all spoke for me at various points in the movie. This is part of the film’s brilliance. It is a true ensemble piece in every sense of the word. Mass reminds me that, as human beings, we are an ensemble. There are no main characters. We all have a part to play in the development of one another’s humanity.

As for the performances, every single one is so equally transcendent I feel like even a full Oscar sweep with wins for each actor and ensemble would not be enough. Each performance lingers for days – a true master class in acting.

Reed Birney is quietly stunning in his performance as Richard, the father of the shooter. Jason Isaacs as Jay, the father of the child who was shot and killed, shows incredible emotional range, bringing every emotion possible to his character. And Martha Plimpton was electrifying and raw as Gail, the mother of the murdered child. I could watch her just breathing on screen for hours. Her breathing through painful emotions is one of the most arresting images I will take away from this movie.

I owe a debt to everyone involved in Mass that I can never repay. They helped me discover parts of myself I didn’t know I had lost, and seeing this movie has already, and will continue to, impact the work I do for the better.

Mass needs to be seen by everyone, but especially by the parents of people who have harmed others. For us, this is not just required viewing, it is medicine.

No matter who you are, you need to see this movie. I promise you: you have never seen another movie like it before. But I hope for all of our sakes we will see many more like it in the years to come.

By Lillyth Quillan for Psychopathy Is

Lillyth Quillan (@LillythQuillan) is the Founder of Parents of Children with Conduct Disorder.