Film Review – Midsummer in Newtown
Midsummer in Newtown
On December 14th, 2012, in Newtown, Connecticut, a twenty-year old lone gunman entered Sandy Hook Elementary School. What followed was one of the worst tragedies in American history, the third deadliest mass shooting by a single person. The result was the death of twenty-six people, including six teachers and twenty students (all of whom ranged from ages six to seven). The incident captured the attention not just of the country but of the entire world. Questions and debates sprung soon after: How did this happen? What could have been done to prevent it? What about gun control, mental health, and bullying? Where were the parents?
Whenever a tragedy like this strikes (sadly, in this country it happens far too often) the pain comes from a feeling of helplessness. There is no way for us to predict something like this happening, and when it does, it leaves a gaping hole in the families of those effected that will never be filled again. While political figures may make a speech and condolences will be sent, soon enough the rest of the world will move on. But for the community of Newtown, they continue to feel the effects of the attack to this very day. While the pain may not be as severe as it once was, its presence is still felt.
But with the passage of time comes a glimmer of hope. In Midsummer in Newtown (2016), director Lloyd Kramer travels to Sandy Hook to see how the families (and especially the kids) are coping four years later. While many of the community display the strength to move forward, there is a somber tone throughout Kramer’s documentary. Everyone moves together with a kind of unspoken understanding. But the purpose of Kramer’s film is not only to reflect on what happened, but to look ahead, to see that there are places to find even the smallest kernels of joy and healing.
This is seen in the preparation and performance of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream by the students of Sandy Hook. But this isn’t just a regular elementary school play. Organized by staff members, invitations were sent out to Broadway directors, producers, composers, and choreographers to come from New York to help make a large-scale production. This includes casting a large number of kids, building an elaborate set, incorporating a big orchestra, detailed costumes – the full works. Almost without hesitation, the invitations were accepted. More so, it was agreed that the play would be re-imagined as a modern, pop musical.
Kramer’s camera spends a lot of the time settled in the background, never intruding on the producers’ efforts to help the kids memorize Shakespeare’s words, to interpret their meaning, to perform it, and to sing and dance as well. It’s a complicated list of requirements for kids so young, but it was encouraging to see these them tackle the material with enthusiasm. Nearly all of the kids have little to no experience performing on stage, but that doesn’t stop them from trying their best. An early scene shows them coming one by one to audition. We see them with all their nervousness and anxiety, but once they relax they show a side that is completely comfortable in the spotlight. The trauma of the shooting is contrasted and then overwhelmed by the fun and enjoyment of putting on this play. Of course, the play isn’t going to make the wounds go away. But for a short time, we get to see these kids smile at being exactly what they are: kids.
Kramer does get into the specifics of the attack, but he doesn’t go over them like a book report. Instead, he takes a more personal approach, interviewing the kids and their parents and asking them to describe what each of them went through on that fateful day. Some of the tougher moments involved the parents, who are still trying to cope with their children being exposed to such danger and evil. One particular couple – who lost a daughter in the attack – describe how tough it was to move on with their lives, trying to stay strong for their other child who now lives without a sister. Some express themselves through art and music, others participate in social activism in an attempt to prevent a similar thing from happening again. Each of them handled the situation in their own way, but all came together to witness this performance.
It feels almost inappropriate to analyze a film like Midsummer in Newtown because it comes from a place that is still raw. The intentions are clearly in the right place. This is a perfect example of how the arts can bring people together, that it can inject a sense of love into a community torn apart by cruelty. Some might see this from a distance and want to stay away because of how sensitive the subject matter is. But for those willing to give it a chance, I suspect they’ll come away not depressed, but inspired.