Song of Parkland


A chorus line of inspiration.

(2019) Documentary (HBO) Melody Herzfeld, Ally Richard, Alex Wind, Ashley Paseltine, Alex Athanasiou, Jared Block, Sawyer Garrity, Emma Gonzalez, Dylan Redshaw, David Hogg, Heather Hart, Emma Summers, Cameron Casky, Molly Reichard, Kelly Mathesie, Ariel Braunstein. Directed by Amy Schatz

 

I’ll be honest with you; I don’t normally review short films. In fact, this is the first one I’ve ever published on this site. Then again, the tragedy at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on February 14, 2008 – less than a week from the one-year anniversary of the event as I write this – resonates with me in a way that few events can. For one thing, it happened in Florida where I live. For another, this was in many ways the straw that broke the camel’s back as teens who were tired of this same old story being repeated over and over and over again with “thoughts and prayers” being the only political response that came of any of these massacres.

On that terrible day drama teacher Melody Herzfeld sheltered her 65 drama students in a store room for two hours until police came to escort them out. Only then did the students – and their teacher – discover that 17 of their peers had died in the tragedy and another 17 were injured. And the survivors needed to find a way to cope with that. How can a 14-17 year old find the strength to deal when most adults can’t?

For Herzfeld, the answer was to finish what the kids had started. They had been working on the children’s musical Yo, Vikings and were in rehearsal the day of the shootings. The drama department puts on an annual kid’s play and it is one of the highlights of their season. The show must go on and so it does and we get to watch it unfold but it isn’t without cost. The kids are hurting deep inside and it comes out, sometimes in unexpected ways. Two of the young people write songs about their feelings, helping them to process what they are going through (we get to hear both songs during the course of the film). And yes, the students go under a media microscope as several of them (including some in the drama class) choose to become advocates of gun control and become the faces of change for a generation. Admired by some, demonized by others, these young people say what you will about them at least made an effort to make change for the better although of course that will depend on your definition of “better.”

Schatz relies heavily on talking head interviews with the kids, interspersed with news reports and occasional cell phone footage. This isn’t about the shootings themselves – we don’t see that aspect of it – but about how the kids adjusted to unthinkable trauma. When the students are interacting with each other, goofing around, being themselves – those are the best moments in the film. Even the real heart-tugging moments – the Tony Awards performance of “Seasons of Love” from Rent, for example – is less compelling.

I would have actually liked to have seen a full-length feature made here and spend more time with say, the parents of the drama students, other teachers besides Herzfeld, that sort of thing. We definitely get a very limited perspective and while it is most valid to concentrate on the students themselves, ranging a bit further opinion for perspective would have brought a little more clarity.

I got the sense that this was an act of catharsis, not only for the filmmakers but for the students themselves. I’m sure that in the days that followed the tragedy they became used to describing their feelings and the events as they saw them must have gotten to be old hat but there feels like there was a lot of genuine emotional healing going on here. It’s gratifying to see but also heartbreaking that it was necessary. This is by no means the perfect documentary but it is, in it’s brief 28-minute run time unforgettable.

REASONS TO GO: The students express themselves well through song. The film is powerful, timely and heartbreaking. One gets the sense that it was cathartic for all involved just making this documentary.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is overly reliant on talking head interviews.
FAMILY VALUES: While none of the violence is depicted, the themes of grieving and feeling of insecurity at school may be difficult for impressionable children.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Schatz won an Emmy for her work on the documentary Through a Child’s Eyes: September 11, 2001.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Go
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/8/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Parkland: Inside Building 12
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel

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Wonder


Julia Roberts with her new leading man.

(2017) Dramedy (Lionsgate) Jacob Tremblay, Owen Wilson, Julia Roberts, Izabela Vidovic, Mandy Patinkin, Noah Jupe, Bryce Gheisar, Elle McKinnon, Daveed Diggs, Ty Consiglio, Kyle Breitkopf, James Hughes, J. Douglas Stewart, Millie Davis, Ali Liebert, Joseph Gordon, Cameron Roberts, Nadji Jeter, Danielle Rose Russell, Erika McKitrick, Sonia Braga, Nicole Oliver. Directed by Stephen Chbosky

 

Going to a new school can be traumatic even in the best of circumstances. Throw in that you know – without any doubt whatsoever – that you are for certain going to be bullied. How much more traumatic does that make things?

Auggie (Tremblay) is in that exact situation. He’s not being bullied because of sexual preference, religion or race; Auggie has a disfiguring disease known as Treacher Collins syndrome. The effects of 27 surgeries besides making it necessary for Auggie to be homeschooled have allowed him to breathe and essentially survive but nothing really can change the deformities of his face. They are so pronounced that he’d rather wear an astronaut’s helmet to school which would merely mark him as weird than go barefaced which marks him as a freak.

His loving parents – Nate (Wilson), the cool dad we all wanted and Isabel (Roberts), the über-protective Mama Bear – are worried for him. His big sister, teenaged Via (Vidovic) is protective of him but has troubles of her own; her best friend Miranda (Russell) has suddenly shut her out and is off with a much different clique of friends. Forlorn, she signs up for drama class and meets a cute guy Justin (Jeter) who she crushes on and eventually the two begin dating.

Auggie, with his upbeat attitude and intelligence begins to make friends despite the hardships. Jack Will (Jupe) becomes his best friend although Julian (Gheisar) continues to torment him. Still all the people in Auggie’s orbit are trying to make it the best they can but it isn’t easy.

This is based on a bestselling children’s book by RJ Palacio who was inspired to write it when her son whom she had taken out for ice cream was brought to tears by the sight of a kid with Treacher Collins syndrome. The book is very heartwarming and teaches the value of accepting people as they are and the movie follows it pretty closely from a stylistic perspective.

The acting is solid – one might say wonderful – with Tremblay getting particular kudos. Child actors tend to be stiff and hammy but Tremblay plays it with a degree of naturalism that is refreshing. Yeah from time to time he says and does thing that come from the perfect kid school of filmmaking but that’s not on Tremblay, the actor. Considering he has to emote under layers of make-up, something some adults have trouble with, one has to really give the kid kudos. Most of the other performances are strong as well, although I would have wished for more Roberts. It seems a shame to hire her on for a role like this one and not have her in the picture more.

My issue is that a lot of the book – and the movie – is a bit too nice, suffering from too-good-to-be-truism. They all have their weak moments but it’s like the entire movie is populated from characters in a children’s show and it doesn’t feel real or authentic. I needed a little more of both to make this work for me.

Movies that are this emotionally manipulative tend to irritate critics but for some reason critics embraced this one. It got strong scores on Rotten Tomatoes (see below) and while it’s pretty much out of the awards consideration picture, it nonetheless got favorable reviews from both critics and consumers alike. I wish I could join them but this felt a little bit too bland and predictable for me to do so.

REASONS TO GO: Tremblay gives a nice, nuanced performance.
REASONS TO STAY: This is a bit too vanilla and predictable for my tastes.
FAMILY VALUES: There are scenes of bullying and some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The medical name for Auggie’s affliction is mandibulofacial dystosis.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/22/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mask
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Strawberry Flavored Plastic