"Newtown," a documentary about the 2012 massacre of kindergarten and first-graders in that small town in Connecticut, tells one of the saddest stories ever told. But while that is not a surprise, a lot about the way this devastating film is put together is different from what you'd expect.
For one thing, director Kim A. Snyder has made the choice not to tell this tale in strict chronological order, leaving, for example, the moment when distraught parents were informed what had happened inside Sandy Hook Elementary School until close to the end of the film.
And Snyder has also chosen not to name the deranged individual who on Dec. 14 of that year killed 20 children, age 6 and 7, as well as half a dozen educators, his mother and himself. We learn a bit about who he was, but that is not what "Newtown" is all about.
Neither is the film's focus on what can be done to stop this plague of gun madness. We see the parents of some of the victims embracing public advocacy and activism, testifying before committees and insisting that "an unstable, suicidal individual shouldn't be allowed access to a military-style weapon that has no place in a home," but that is not the point either.
Rather Snyder has chosen to make a documentary about collective grief. She's created a devastating cry from the heart of a crisis that shows how the nightmare of the massacre swallowed Newtown whole, leaving not only the parents but many others in town dealing with the unimaginable. When Mark Barden says, "Who knows how to do this?" he is in effect speaking for everyone in the film and perhaps all of us as well.
Barden, whose son Daniel was killed, is one of three parents of victims (along with Nicole Hockney, mother of Dylan, and David Wheeler, father of Ben) whose reactions are gone into in detail and whose stories make up the spine of "Newtown."
Director Snyder, whose last documentary was "Welcome to Shelbyville," is an empathetic interviewer who clearly benefits from the great amount of time -- close to three years -- she spent in the town.
Snyder did not even attempt to interview families who lost children until almost eight months into the project. And its clear from the emotional intensity and honesty of the responses that people were given the time and space to talk as long as they needed to.
So we hear Mark Barden intimately lamenting, "Every day I live I am one day further from my life with Daniel," listen as David Wheeler says, "We're all terrified of forgetting what Ben looked like," and see Nicole Hockney confronting a room full of thousands of letters, gifts and portraits sent to her, most of which she has not had the emotional strength to open.
Unashamed tears and deep feelings are common in "Newtown," and not just from the parents involved but also from all the interviewees, so profoundly have the mass killings shaken everyone's sense of what the dark boundaries of the possible are in small town America.
So we hear from Monsignor Robert Weiss, pastor of St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church, who conducted eight funeral masses for children in a week, as well as Sgt. William Cario, a Connecticut state trooper and one of the first law enforcement people on the scene, who says simply, "No one needs to know specifically what we saw."
And then there is Melissa Malin, a neighbor of the Bardens. The children of both families were close, with her son Kyle being especially tight with Dylan. Just knowing what to do, what to say, how to act when Kyle survived and Dylan did not has wrenched all those lives in an unimaginable way.
Though "Newtown" is unequivocal that for those involved getting over this is not an option, it is heartening to see people in a different psychological space after three years than when filming began.
And some anecdotes, even the upsetting ones, leave a powerful mark. Like Cario reporting that he came across Dylan's body with a teacher's arm across it, and feeling comforted that the small boy did not die alone. It's heartbreaking stuff, and "Newtown" handles it all with a gentle grace.
No MPAA rating
Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes
Playing Laemmle's Monica, Santa Monica, Edwards' University Town Center, Irvine