“The Graduates,” which counts Chloé Zhao and John Cho among its executive producers and gets its world premiere at the Tribeca Festival, revolves around school shooting survivors who are unable to move on even one year later. It’s a compelling subject, for sure, but one on which no dramatic treatments have been nearly as astute or profound as what’s already been in the news.
Genevieve (Mina Sundwall of Netflix’s “Lost in Space”), who lost her boyfriend in a shooting and owes her teacher several assignments, doubts her test score is sufficient to get her into college and contemplates taking a gap year post-graduation. Ben (Alex R. Hibbert of “Moonlight”), who lost his friend and coworker at his part-time job, has transferred and quit the basketball team before dropping out of high school entirely. John (Cho), who lost his son, continues to coach at the school even though his wife and daughter have already relocated to another state. Although the tragedy seems to have claimed six victims, Genevieve’s boyfriend, Ben’s coworker and John’s son happen to be one and the same.
Writer-director Hannah Peterson doesn’t reveal much upfront about what happened. We see a makeshift shrine in the school lobby at the beginning and a priest memorializing the dead during a service. We don’t find out that gun violence is responsible for the deaths until much later and only in passing. These aren’t spoilers, though, as there’s really no mystery to solve.
Many of the filmmakers’ choices don’t suit the film at all. Carolina Costa’s hand-held scope cinematography of the dim school hallways and Andrew Orkin’s ominous score would be more appropriate for a horror flick. These create a sense of anxiety in opposition to the overall melancholic tenor.
There is little chemistry among the cast members. When Genevieve, Romie (Yasmeen Fletcher) and Becker (Ewan Manley) catch up with Ben for the first time since his transfer, they all seem less than thrilled. The same goes for John giving his players the pep talk. They are not communicative with each other or even the audience. Some of the dialogue sounds so vacuous that it seems to have been thought up on the spot. Indeed, the actors look like they’re on their own, forced to improvise without direction or even much of a script. Cho is basically reprising his sad sack performance from Prime Video’s “Don’t Make Me Go.” Peterson draws these characters like stick figures, without depth and motivation. There’s absolutely no build-up to their sudden outbursts and catharses, which just randomly crop up after the plot stalls for about 40 minutes’ worth of exposition.
Peterson then feels the urge to tie everything up with a bow, but her resolutions of their despair seem just as half-baked and surficial. She often shows us only the before and after, seemingly without any bandwidth to illustrate how her characters get from point A to point B. Genevieve and Ben have a fight at a party, but a few scenes later they are on speaking terms again. We never see how they’ve patched things up. Genevieve unsurprisingly turns to therapy, but she miraculously restores her mental health seemingly after just one group session. Because of all these disconnects, nothing resonates.
The film seeks to tackle the same themes of trauma and survivors’ guilt as “The Fallout,” Megan Park’s 2021 Max feature starring Jenna Ortega. But while that film also engages in shallow depictions and the tokenization of its Black character, at least it has characterizations to speak of.
In “The Graduates,” all the characters just mope about without purpose. There is enough material here for a short, and not a particularly good one at that. It evokes one of the most hot-button topics imaginable and proceeds to say absolutely nothing about it. Nothing rings true in this compilation of cliches. There’s not much of a dramatic arc, rising action or falling action. It’s as if Peterson just expects that viewers will reflexively sympathize with her characters.