Review: ‘The Graduates’ (2023), starring Mina Sundwall, Alex Hibbert, Yasmeen Fletcher, Ewan Manley, John Cho, Maria Dizzia, Kelly O’Sullivan

June 26, 2023

by Carla Hay

Mina Sundwall in “The Graduates”

“The Graduates” (2023)

Directed by Hannah Peterson

Culture Representation: Taking place in 2019, in an unnamed city in Utah, the dramatic film “The Graduates” features a predominantly cast of characters (with some Asians and African Americans) representing the working-class and the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A teenager, who is on the verge of graduating from high school, struggles with grief after a school shooting left her boyfriend and other people dead.

Culture Audience: “The Graduates” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in well-acted dramas about the effects of mass shootings, but viewers should be prepared to go through an emotionally taxing experience when watching this movie.

Moody and atmospheric, “The Graduates” will bore some viewers looking for a more typical drama about people in a community dealing with the aftermath of a school shooting. The cast’s good acting is the main reason to watch when the plot starts to wear thin. “The Graduates” had its world premiere at the 2023 Tribeca Festival, where the movie won the prize for Best Cinematography in a U.S. Narrative Feature.

Written, directed and edited by Hannah Peterson, “The Graduates” is Peterson’s first feature film. The movie’s cinematography (by Caroline Costa) skillfully evokes the intended feeling of people getting by in life by powering through or struggling in a haze of grief. It’s the type of movie where the performers’ body language and facial expressions are of utmost importance, because their characters aren’t necessarily going to be the types of people who say what they’re thinking out loud.

“The Graduates” was filmed on location in an unnamed city in Utah. In the movie, the Class of 2019 is getting ready to graduate from Lewis High School. Their graduation is overshadowed by the lingering trauma of a mass shooting that took place at the school about a year ago. The story in “The Graduates” is told mostly through the perspective of a graduating student named Genevieve, nicknamed Gen (played by Mina Sundwall), who’s trying to pretend to the world that she’s coping well with the aftermath of the shooting.

The movie’s opening scene shows Gen looking at a memorial of flowers and photos in the school hallway. She’s later shown in a meeting with a school guidance counselor named Vicki (played by Kelly O’Sullivan), who encourages Gen to apply to colleges, even though Gen plans to take a gap year after graduating from high school. Although Gen doesn’t seem all that concerned about applying for colleges, she’s more concerned than she wants people to believe she is, because she later gets upset when she finds out that her SAT score was 1010 out of a possible 1600.

There are indications that Gen is slacking off in her school work—and it’s not just because she has “senioritis,” the term used for graduating seniors who stop caring about their schoolwork and grades because they already have post-graduation plans where their last grades before graduating won’t matter. Gen’s social studies teacher (played by Bradley Fehr) has given Gen an extension on assignments where she missed the deadlines. At home, Gen seems emotionally disconnected. And it’s starting to become very noticeable to Gen’s single mother Maggie (played by Maria Dizzia), who wants to go to therapy with Gen to help Gen cope with her grief.

Maggie tells Gen: “I just want you to have an easier life than I did.” Gen replies in a hostile tone: “Are you disappointed? Well join the fucking club!” Maggie gently tries to find out if Gen has been able to confide in her friends about how she’s coping with the school shooting. Gen brushes off Maggie’s concerns and tells her that Gen her friends don’t talk about the shooting.

Gen has one friend in particular who affects her more than her small group of female friends who are students at Lewis High School. Ben (played by Alex Hibbert) used to go to Lewis High School, but he transferred to nearby Jefferson High School after the mass shooting at Lewis High School. Because of this school transfer, Ben and his former classmates at Lewis High School didn’t really keep in touch with each other.

But one day, Ben shows up outside Lewis High School and catches up with some of the people he knew, including Gen. Ben eventually confesses that he dropped out of school and now works as a dishwasher. It doesn’t take long to see that Ben has reached out to his former classmates because he’s still trying to process his grief and is trying to connect with people who know what it was like to survive the shooting that took place at Lewis High School in 2018.

Another person who’s prominently featured in the story is Lewis High School basketball coach John Kim (played by John Cho), who leads the boys’ basketball team and who is dealing with his own type of grief: John’s son Tyler Kim (played by Daniel Christopher Kim, also known as Daniel Kim, seen in flashbacks and photos) was one of the students who was murdered during the school shooting. If Tyler had lived, he would have been in the graduating class of 2019. One of the basketball team players is named Becker (played by Ewan Manley), whom Tyler treats almost like a surrogate son.

Eventually (this isn’t spoiler information), it’s revealed about midway through the story what the connection is between Gen, Ben and John: Tyler was Gen’s boyfriend and Ben’s best friend. John and Gen have a semi-close but somewhat awkward relationship, where they find it difficult to talk with each other about Tyler. With Ben hanging around again, it seems to trigger something in Gen, who has been avoiding expressing a lot of feelings that she’s kept bottled up inside of her.

“The Graduates” doesn’t have a lot of action or constant melodrama. Instead, it’s a “slice of life” film that shows how grief seeps into everyday routines and mundane activities. When Ben is alone and using his phone, he still calls Tyler’s voice mail to leave messages. Ben also seems to be drifting in life, with the implication that it’s because of his unprocessed grief.

When Gen is hanging out with her friends, including her closest female pal Romie (played by Yasmeen Fletcher), they goof off and act like typical teenagers. But then, they also show signs of being unsettled by Ben hanging out with them again. At one point, Romie verbally lashes out at Ben for avoiding her for several months.

At home, John speaks to his wife Eliza (played by Bekah Jung) in a videoconference call. She seems to be temporarily staying somewhere else with their daughter, who’s about 3 or 4 years old. It’s revealed that Eliza is actually in Houston because the family had planned to move there after Tyler’s death. John just hasn’t been able to bring himself to move out of the Kim family’s Utah home.

“The Graduates” doesn’t have a lot of snappy dialogue. Many of the conversations are in measured tones, as if people are choosing their words carefully, so as not to reveal their true feelings. And some of the scenes are actually quite dull, as they occasionally drag, with not much happening. However, there are certain scenes that are very poignant and realistic in showing survivor’s guilt and the difficulty that some people have in admitting how deeply hurt they are by the trauma of experiencing a loved one die in a mass shooting.

Sundwall’s and Hibbert’s best scenes in the movie are the scenes that they have together. Gen and Ben have a connection to Tyler that brings them both comfort and pain. And that connection leads to some emotional bonding between them that Gen and Ben don’t expect. Some of their scenes together require Sundwall and Hibbert to express some very raw emotions that are handled with a lot of authenticity. Cho gives an admirable but low-key performance as Tyler’s grieving father John.

Perhaps the biggest flaw of “The Graduates” is that all of the characters except for Gen, Ben and John are very underdeveloped. There could have been more in the movie to show how other students were emotionally affected by the shooting, instead of having occasional glimpses. The scenes with John coaching the basketball team are probably the closest to revealing the lingering effects that this traumatic event had on the surviving students. The movie barely has any exploration of how the school’s teachers and other faculty members (except for John) were affected.

Mostly, what “The Graduates” succeeds in doing is showing that there is no one way for people to grieve. And not everyone’s will have a path to healing that moves forward in a straight line. There can be lots of zigzags and regressions along the way. If there’s any big takeaway that viewers should get from this morose but hopeful movie, it’s that no matter what path someone goes on because of grief, it’s more important for the grieving person to have some kind of emotional support to help in this often-difficult journey.

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