What do you do when everything around you has shattered? For a town like Newtown, Connecticut, which has a population of about 28,000 people, those shattering events can feel irreparable. When people in a place that size feel pain, an echo chamber effect takes place. When something with the enormity of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting occurs, nobody in the town went untouched by tragedy. Grief bounces off the borders of the town, filling everyone within those borders feeling lost and destroyed.
|Photo credit: Participant Media/Vulcan Productions|
What happened on December 14, 2012, at the town’s grade school was a matter of national importance. The senseless deaths of 20 first graders and six adults at the hands of a disturbed gunman created an emptiness in people around the country. Who could allow this to happen? What kind of justice could ever come out of it? Those questions were answered with the words “America” and “none.”
And then the country that allowed the atrocity to happen moved on to other concerns, mostly forgetting about those demolished families who would never be whole again.
Midsummer in Newtown, documentarian Lloyd Kramer’s latest film, returns to that community to show that a kind of healing can take place when those with good hearts try to help grieving people communicate their feelings to the world. It’s not enough to get the community return to normalcy, but it’s a start. Its grace is in every shot and its eventual warmth begins to transcend the horrid circumstances that spawned it.
Kramer follows a group of Broadway professionals who head north to Connecticut to help students at Sandy Hook and other local schools put on a community theatre production of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Kids left traumatized by the shooting find their way out of their shells, like 9-year-old Tain Gregory, a sweet Sandy Hook student who’s still working on pronouncing his Rs correctly. Performing as one of that play’s “mechanicals,” an acting troupe, Tain dresses like the cutest version you’ve ever seen of The Wizard of Oz’s Cowardly Lion. He roars at the other performers on the stage and he commands an auditorium’s worth of attention. With the community’s adoring eyes on him, he is assured of safety and agency in these moments, learning to trust the people around him and also beginning to trust that he can make good things happen for himself.
Tain’s classmate, Sammy Vertucci, was also at school on the day so many people died for no reason. Like Tain, she requires comfort and reassurance that things will be okay. Following the shooting, her parents tell Kramer’s gentle camera, Sammy retreated from everything, even the things she had previously loved. No more sports, no more nothing. Sammy admits to being hard on herself, and this difficulty manifests itself during rehearsals for the play, when she gets angry for not remembering her blocking on the stage. When the choreographer stops her and calmly lets her know this is totally fine and that they can rewind a couple moments to get Sammy in place, you can see a little twitch in Sammy’s eyes and a loosening in her shoulders. It’s a sign that she can relax and it means the world to her.
Comfort is harder to come by for Nelba Márquez-Greene and Jimmy Greene, who lost their daughter, Ana, on that day. They struggle more than most of those featured in Kramer’s film, to find a purpose after her death, to do something, anything that will move them forward in life. Nelba begins a foundation in their daughter’s name, and she travels around the country to work with kids on trauma relief and community building. She mentions how hard it was to take her project -- and her plea for gun control efforts -- to Congress without her husband by her side. But once she realizes that Jimmy’s grieving process was a more internalized thing and that he, a jazz musician, processed their daughter’s death through music, she shows immense grace. A realization clicks into place for her that they were together in their pain, despite tensions they may have experienced while trying to understand each other in the wake of a tragedy nobody could expect to handle well. Their story ends with them, together with their son, on stage at Jimmy’s debut performance of the album he wrote for Ana.
Unsurprisingly, performance is the thing that ties Midsummer in Newtown together. It is that cathartic moment of earnest expression that allows these people a moment of clarity, or immersion, or distraction. Without ever getting overly (obnoxiously) obvious, as many in his position might be tempted to do, Kramer shows how people can apply the arts to build a bridge to feeling like a person again. It does not fix what happened. It does not make that emptiness go away. But comfort is comfort, and that counts for something.
Director: Lloyd Kramer
Rating: 4/5 stars
Available in limited release now