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MIDSUMMER IN NEWTOWN (2016) review

January 28, 2017

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produced by: Jo Budzilowicz, Braden Bergan and Tom Yellin
directed by: Lloyd Kramer
rated: unrated
runtime: 81 min.
U.S. release date: April 17, 2016 (Tribeca Film Festival) and January 29, 2017 & February 2, 2017 (Gene Siskel Film Center, Chicago, IL )

 

Sadly, school shootings happen frequently in the U.S.  Sadder still is how news coverage of these tragic events occur for maybe about a week after they occur on and then its on to the next hot topic. But what of the families devastated by these senseless acts of violence and the communities they occur in?  What happens to the teachers and students who somehow survived an event in which an active shooter entered school hallways and purposefully killed 20 first graders and 6 adults? It’s hard to answer these questions, primarily because none of these people are featured in the news after the news coverage of their tragedy has cycled out. Fortunately, there are two recent documentaries that focus on Newtown, Connecticut, Kim A. Snyder’s “Newtown” and, this film, “Midsummer in Newtown”, directed by Lloyd Kramer, which is getting a limited release in select cities after its premiere last April at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival. 

Why Newtown, Connecticut? That’s where 20-year-old Adam Lanza opened fire inside Sandy Hook Elementary School during the morning of a sunny day on November 30th, 2012. We forget about Sandy Hook and Newtown, don’t we? It’s not our intention, but the incessant news coverage of other tragedies sometimes blur what happened when and where. Plus, most often, we don’t personally feel the repercussions of such devastating acts, so when documentaries come along focusing specifically on the residents of Newtown and how their community has dealt with the aftermath of Sandy Hook.

In 2014, Kramer’s intent was to make such a documentary, but then he learned of a group called NewArts and about a pop musical called “A ROCKIN’ Midsummer Night’s Dream” that would be directed by Michael Unger and starring Newtown children. NewArts was created in response to the tragedy in Sandy Hook, designed to encourage the community there, specifically the children, with arts activities and performing arts opportunities. When Kramer and The Documentary Group learned of this production, he changed his documentary  approach to cover this project, from auditions to opening night, while also focusing on certain families who either lost children on that fateful day or were personally affected in some way.

 

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Unger had assembled a group of talented individuals who’ve worked on Broadway – composer, production designer, choreographer and a couple of professional actors – to assist in the production, as they work with children who have very little performance experience. Without a doubt, Kramer is fascinated by this and uses a straightforward approach throughout the film, knowing the people we meet will be enough to draw our attention. Indeed, as soon as these auditions are covered, these children won me over. Some walk into the classroom a little shell-shocked, while others broke out into their own with surprising confidence and fearlessness. Such is the case with 9-year-old Sandy Hook student, Tain Gregory, who surprised everyone with his free interpretation of Lewis Carroll’s poem “Jabberwocky”, incorporating every ounce of his energy. This bright and open young boy with a slight speech impediment is a treasure to behold and becomes one of several individuals that Kramer focuses on.

On the day of the shooting, Tain was looking forward to hanging out with a friend of his, but that friend never came over. Tain was devastating to learn that was because his friend was one of the victims of the shooting. We learn this primarily from his mother and father, who have grieved with their son and their friends who’ve lost children that day. Tain is the youngest cast member in the musical and is seen as an obvious source of encouragement to others in the production, just as he is greatly encouraged by the camaraderie built by his co-stars and the trust and belief Unger and his crew provide the boy.

The other cast members share their nervousness and trepidation going into the production with the audience, yet they are primarily motivated by excitement as they attend call backs. This is after all a world where shows like “American Idol” and “The Voice” permeate the consciousness of children growing up for the past decade. It must have been thrilling and huge for these kids to have an experienced group come into town and offer them their time, energy and experience. Nicole Kolitsas is one such kid. Already confident on the stage, she’s cast as the mischievous Puck and is encouraged to become a little bit more out of herself, presenting a challenge the director is certain she can meet. That’s another thing we learn about this opportunity – that although there’s challenges for the children (like wrapping their minds and tongues around the The Bard’s Elizabethan prose), it becomes such a bonding and empowering experience for the cast and crew and their families.

 

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We also meet an impressively courageous young girl named Samantha Vertucci and her family. Despite some butterflies, she goes through the audition process and winds up getting cast as a fairy. Her parents share how devastating the day of the shooting was for them and for Samantha (we see news footage of her Samantha and her father walking away from the school with others) and how, with this production, they are slowly starting to see the return of the “pre-event Samantha”. It’s easy to become just as proud and happy for Samantha as her parents are, when we see their daughter get a handle on the choreography involved in her role and lose herself in her performance.

The film also introduces us to another family, Jimmy and Nelba Márquez-Greene, who lost their daughter Ana to the massacre. We see them sitting together as they talk to the camera about their lives – how they met, when they had kid and how they learned about the death of their little girl, not to mention the effect its had on her older brother, their firstborn child. It’s heartbreaking, yet inspiring to see these two sit down and discuss what’s happened to them. Think how hard that would be to do. I’ve seen many marriages dissolve after experiencing the loss of a child and considering there are only a few couples featured in “Midsummer” who’ve experienced loss (compared to the number of children who were killed), it’s impressive to see Ana’s parents featured here. Kramer also touches on how the couple grieved after Ana’s death. Green, a musician, immersed himself in created music and eventually created an album called “Beautiful Life”, which he performs live in a touching performance for the community. At first, Nelba didn’t understand his way of grieving – deciding to develop a program called The Ana Grace Project, which offers an outlet for grade school children to voice their fears and frustrations – but she eventually was moved by his own grieving process, just as we the viewers are.

“Midsummer in Newtown” could’ve benefitted more from offering more screen time to the child actors involved in the production – asking them questions about the story they’re performing and how it can be applied to life outside the stage. Their performance obviously becomes a life-affirming experience, which can be seen when after the show is over and both Samantha and Tain can be seen in tears, emotional over the fact that the musical is over. Anyone involved in a theater play or musical at a young age can definitely relate to this and will know how impacting working alongside peers and having adults who believe in them is. It’s something I’ve personally experienced and look back on fondly.

There’s a spiritual faith exhibited by some of the individuals here that is inspiring, territory Kramer has previously covered in his TV adaptations of Mitch Albom books, “The Five People You Meet in Heaven” and “For One More Day,” including young Tain, who states that God is the most important thing in his life. He may not be able to specifically articulate such an admittance with a verbal response, but you can see it in his actions as he interacts with a good friend of his who is special needs, playing with him and taking him back stage after opening night. With his open-hearted vulnerability and innocence, Tain is an inspiration to all.

Is “Midsummer in Newtown” a hard watch? At times, sure. Mostly, it’s an important and inspiring look at recovery through grief and loss and how the arts can play a crucial role in taking uncertain steps forward.

 

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RATING: ***

 

 

“Midsummer in Newtown” will play at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago on Sunday, January 29th at 4:45pm and Thursday, February 2nd at 7:45pm (Michael Unger, who appears in the film as the director of the musical A Rockin’ Midsummer Night’s Dream, and producer Jo Budzilowicz will be present for audience discussion, during this 2nd date).

 

 

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