School shootings have become part of normal life for high school teens. The frequency of these killings continues to shock. With their prevalence, the names of the schools have become too numerous to count. As a generation of students begins to graduate, there are real questions about how these events can and will change the students. The Graduates, a stunning debut from Hannah Peterson, forces us to live in the lives of the teens affected by these events.
One year after a school shooting, a group of students get ready for college. For Genevieve (Mina Sundwall), the year marks the death of her high school sweetheart and her hopes for college. Her mother (Maria Dizzia) believes her future remains secure, but Genevieve is unsure. The basketball coach (John Cho) attempts to get Genevieve more involved. The return of her friend Ben (Alex R. Hibbert) may get her back into the social scene, but Ben needs help as well. Together, they hope to make the best of their final months before graduation.
Peterson’s willingness to let the teens and parents of these events wallow in the grief provides showcase moments for the cast. The performance of The Graduates comes from Hibbert, who plays a teen struggling to regain his focus after he’s lost everything. He hides from the world, and as we watch him struggle around other groups, he becomes himself again when he’s with his friends. He becomes an open wound, with grief pouring out of him.
It’s difficult watching his friends and family struggle to support him as he reaches for some understanding of what comes next. Hibbert continues to build a resume that’s become impossible to take for granted. He’s truly an exciting talent and one that audiences should get used to seeing deliver something special.
Sundwall’s writing and frustrations feel honest as well. Peterson clearly worked this character until it was near perfection, as the small emotional beats and feelings showcase maturity beyond her years. However, these are also the small things we pick up from her performance that showcase Sundwall’s talent.
Once again, Cho proves he’s one of our great actors. His emotional turn at the heart on the edges of the story opens the door for the most impactful moments. He has several moments that might be among the best work he’s ever done on screen. Cho brings down the house no matter which character he joins on screen. Cho remains one of the more underutilized performers in Hollywood, and this provides another example of his talent.
Peterson proves herself as a patient and special filmmaker. She lets the camera sit on her actors and the emotion develops. It’s rare for naturalistic filmmakers to emerge with complete control over the camera and emotion of their stories, yet Peterson proves talented enough to join that club. Keep on her next projects, because she projects to be one of the most unique filmmakers in the next five to six years.