Tribeca 2023 Review: Hannah Peterson’s “The Graduates” Aims to Start a Conversation

It sounds like the best thing that John (John Cho), a basketball coach at Lewis High School, can tell his team right after a loss in “The Graduates” is to “forget all about tonight,” knowing that when what happened can’t be changed, it’s healthier to look forward rather than back. Yet by the time this occurs in Hannah Peterson’s compelling debut feature, you wonder whether his advice to the young players may be doing more harm than good when their focus should be on the next game may remove any instinct to dwell on mistakes made, but it also takes the onus of doing any soul searching off that could have them better prepared for what’s ahead, an attitude that seems hardly limited to the court when Lewis is one year removed from a mass shooting and it’s rarely discussed any more.

Ironically, it’s to the credit of “The Graduates” that its writer/director isn’t one to look back either, generously sparing audiences of actually witnessing the tragedy that took the lives of six when trusting that an impressive cast can wear its aftermath on their faces and the film follows Genevieve (Mina Sundwall), a senior at the Utah-based high school where a memorial to the victims is set up in the hallway but classes now have returned back to a normal schedule and with it, only a few months to go before Genevieve has to start making decisions about her future. Her SAT scores aren’t anywhere close to getting into her dream school of NYU, but staying close to home where all she has is memories of her boyfriend Tyler, who was one of those killed on that fateful day, doesn’t seem like an option either, and as she tells her counselor Vicky (Kelly O’Sullivan), she’s expecting to take a gap year, though to Vicky that only seems like it’d be kicking the can down the road, even if she’s careful not to say as much for fear of it coming out wrong.

When everyone has trouble figuring out the right things to say, Peterson shows an unerring ability to do so herself, honing in on the tension that exists between people conscientious of one another’s feelings to the point it stifles healthy dialogue. As Genevieve tells her mother Maggie (Maria Dizzia), it’s the fact that she and her friends don’t talk about what happened that gives her a feeling of safety when Maggie wonders if seeing a professional might be of help, and her mood brightens considerably when it seems like she’ll have someone else to talk to when Ben (Alex Hibbert), a former classmate and friend of Tyler’s, returns after transferring high schools, only to drop out and start to hang out around his old friends at Lewis again. However, “The Graduates” wisely accounts for how in an event of this magnitude there are limits to how much an immediate circle of survivors can lean on one another when they are unlikely to experience trauma on the same timeline and beyond building that astute narrative consideration into the film’s structure, cinematographer Carolina Costa’s sharp camerawork revels in deep blacks where darkness threatens to overtake even the lightest of moments for those within them.

While recognizing there are no easy answers, “The Graduates” does have a gentility about it that lets audiences in without losing any of its dramatic heft and beyond a moving central turn from Sundwall, it stirs with its careful evocation of an interconnectedness that extends beyond the circumstances at hand once Genevieve comes into contact with others dealing with pain, able to identify with how they’re feeling, if not necessarily why. When speaking to the trouble of simply wanting to move on from a tragedy, “The Graduates” proves arresting.

“The Graduates” will screen at Tribeca Festival on June 11th at 6:30 pm at the Village East and June 12th at 5:15 pm at the AMC 19th St. East.

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