When a teacher asks a child where she goes to school, and the child cheerfully answers, “Sandy Hook,” we are reminded that childhood is complicated in a whole different way for the kids of the 21st century.
We may also respond to those words with a tug in the throat, a response that happens frequently throughout “Midsummer in Newtown,” a new documentary.
The filmmakers had a nice idea: document how a theatrical production of Shakespeare helped some young people navigate the difficulties that followed the mass shooting on Dec. 14, 2012.
On that day, a 20-year-old man with guns came to Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and murdered 20 children and six adults. The town is portrayed here as an idyllic, upscale suburb still in shock over its dark day.
The movie narrows its focus to a handful of people. Two families have children participating in the production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” They have kids who made it out of the school the day of the slaughter.
A third family was not as fortunate, yet their slain daughter seems to live as vividly as the children who are rehearsing for the show.
There are curious aspects to director Lloyd Kramer’s approach to the material. It’s odd that the movie is shot like a cereal commercial, for one thing. And there’s a great deal of talk about God and prayer, yet no one mentions that the massacre prompted a debate about gun control.
The film’s limitations are hardly enough to blunt the emotional impact of seeing traumatized kids find their voices through the community of live theater. Theater gives opportunities to act silly, to learn professionalism, to be part of a team, and this production is no different.
When it comes time to hear the parents’ descriptions of what it was like to live through Dec. 14, the stories are, obviously, gut-wrenching. Perhaps they are necessary to put the theatrical experience in context, although it does seem at times that there are two different movies jostling for position here.
Because of its intimate look at the struggle against grief, “Midsummer in Newtown” gets a pass for whatever wobbles it has as storytelling. Now let’s hope the children of Sandy Hook can continue growing up without too many intrusive eyes being fixed on them.
“Midsummer in Newtown” (2 1/2 stars)
A documentary account of the children of Sandy Hook Elementary School — the survivors of the terrible 2012 gun massacre — embarking on a theatrical production of a Shakespeare play. The movie sometimes seems like it has two different subjects jostling for position, but the heart-tugging spirit of the kids carries it through.
Rating: Not rated; probably PG for subject matter
Showing: Sundance Cinemas