Art can be a very powerful tool. It can help provide a voice to people with something they need to express, it can unite a community, and can help to manage indescribable pain and hardship. This concept of the healing power of the arts is the center focus of Midsummer in Newtown, which was screened last weekend at the Washington West Film Festival. Midsummer is a new documentary about the people of Newtown, Connecticut moving through the trauma of the horrific mass-shooting of Sandy Hook Elementary School, and the different ways they managed to express their sorrow.
In the wake of the 2012 tragedy, a group of professional Broadway artists head to Newtown to produce a pop-rock adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the community. They cast local children of all ages in the principal roles, in the hopes of providing them a channel for their loss and frustration. The film follows the production from its audition process through to its opening night. It focuses on both the creative team working on the show, and the kids in the cast working through their pain. Simultaneously, the documentary also follows the connected story of the Greene family. A musician father and activist mother who lost their daughter in the shooting, their efforts to turn this horror into something that can benefit their community are a highlight of the film.
This is a deeply moving film that handles a sensitive and devastating topic with incredible care. Never does the film feel the least bit exploitative of this tragedy. Instead, it lets the people of the town, both children and adults, speak honestly about their own experiences and emotional state in the wake of the murders. The way Midsummer allows for its subjects to tell their own story is truly beautiful, and provides a vehicle for some of the most daunting expressions of loss I’ve ever heard. There are moments in this film that shook me to my core, and will stick with me for the rest of my life.
That being said, the movie also does an excellent job of balancing tones throughout the movie. Obviously, a devastating national tragedy such as Sandy Hook is a very difficult thing to handle. So, the film is centered on the hope you can find in the darkest of places. By focusing on the play, Mr. Greene’s music, and Mrs. Greene’s campaigning for peace and justice, the filmmakers ultimately create a very uplifting narrative out of their brilliantly shot footage.
There is obviously a great deal of hurt, loss, and despair in the film, but also a great sense of joy and purpose. Watching these kids form an incredible bond with each other through their work on this play is intensely powerful.
Midsummer in Newtown is one of the most compelling and beautifully told documentaries I have ever seen.
In memory of her daughter, Nelba Márquez-Greene created The Ana Grace Project – a nonprofit organization to promote mental healthcare (“Love Wins. It also saves lives.”)