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(Midsummer in Newtown, one of two documentaries from this year on the tragic Sandy Hook Massacre, takes a more positive spin on the aftermath of the horrific events. The film is available now from Participant Media.)

One of two films about the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre released in the past year, Midsummer in Newtown strikes a very different tone than its companion, the more simply titled Newtown (for which I wrote a capsule review in my coverage of the AFI DOCS festival). That film – a powerful and poignant explication of the horrific event, itself, and its aftermath – was melancholy in the extreme, albeit marked by moments of hopeful reflection. Midsummer in Newtown addresses the tragedy, as well, but is primarily concerned with one particular effort to help survivors overcome their individual and collective trauma. We watch as the local school system mounts a pop-musical version of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, casting kids from the area in a joyful stage production that proves cathartic to all.

Amazingly, each film seems to feature a different group of characters, as if the directors had decided not to overlap. Some faces look familiar, but the main interview subjects here are not the same. One other variation is that Midsummer in Newtown spends a lot of time talking to the children. Director Lloyd Kramer (Liz & Dick) does a marvelous job training his camera on his young stars, most of which were in the school on the day of the shooting. They are not the only ones in need of therapy, however, and we spend time with parents – both of the deceased and of witnesses – who share their stories with us through tears and mournful laughter. In spite of the sadness on display, there is an unmistakable note of optimism that goes beyond the wrenching misery of Newtown. Together, though made separately, they form the perfect pair, the one a descent into grief, the other the recovery from it.

It’s a beautiful movie, as well. Cinematographer Matthew Peterson (Dear Mandela) frames the scenes in artful compositions that draw attention to a fine aesthetic without ever overwhelming the story. I was a particular fan of his talking-head interview shots, tastefully lit and staged with a great depth of field that embraces the subjects in the comfort of the blur brought on by shallow-focus backgrounds. Our gaze is drawn directly to the eyes of the on-camera interviewees, where the truth lies. Heartache mixes with resilience, healed through the curative powers of the arts.

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is: lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; editor at Film Festival Today; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the founders and former cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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