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Newtown isn’t about the details of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. There are no comprehensive recollections of the attack itself, and outside of a screenshot of a police report, no one ever refers to the shooter by name, nor should they. As director Kim A. Snyder interviews various parents of the victims, members of law enforcement, medical staff, religious officials, teachers, and other citizens of the bruised community, no one seems to care much at all about the motivation behind the crime, or try to understand a horrible act that could never truly be understood. This isn’t a film about psychology, it’s a film about grief.
When tackling this complex, somewhat obtuse subject matter, Snyder approaches it from all angles. One method of therapy is repetition. Parents like the Hockleys, Bardens, and Wheelers constantly scroll through Facebook photos and videos of their children the way any of us would do if we lost a loved one, worried that their memory will permanently fade. That’s a different kind of fear altogether. How does one deal with possibly forgetting the face of their child? Or what they sounded like? Or how they moved?
When discussing this terrifying form of potential amnesia, Mark Barden — the father of Sandy Hook victim Daniel Barden — stumbles across an even more difficult question in his own mind: What were his son’s last moments like? While he recognizes the morbidity of the thought, he explains that he was a part of every aspect of Daniel’s life; aware of his friends, his interests, how his days were at school. But that last day in class? He’ll never fully understand what that was like, and as his dad, he feels an intense need to know what his son experienced in his last minutes on Earth: the pain, the fear, the comfort of those around him, all of it. Films about loss – even documentaries – aren’t always able to examine grief with such heartbreaking complexity.
Just as vital is Newtown‘s physical exploration of grief. Seeing parents talk about the loss of their little ones is devastating enough from one’s own third-person perspective. Still, there’s no way to know exactly what they’re going through, unless you’ve lost a child yourself (and I sincerely hope you haven’t). But Snyder transports you into their psyches as best she can with the simple device of punctuating each talking-head interview with a cut to black every few moments. It’s the equivalent to a written pause in the stage directions of a play, a moment for the audience to reflect on the heaviness of death, the heaviness of joyful memories, the heaviness of a town trying to move forward.
At the same time, it’s doubtful Snyder thought about the filmmaking process in such analytical terms. Sandy Hook was an unfathomable tragedy that needs no angle whatsoever. Something terrible happened, everyone in Newtown was forced to soldier on – even though giving up would be a completely justified option – and someone decided to film it. There’s no agenda to capturing the catharsis of memorial concerts and obstacle races, or the rummaging through of old photographs. There’s no agenda to showing the families’ various ways of dealing with unspeakable loss. In one poignant scene, David Wheeler – father to the deceased Ben Wheeler – both comforts and haunts himself by shoveling snow, the white mounds reminding him of a Christmas memory with Ben that the audience sees through old cameraphone footage. This is someone else’s grief made palpable. Someone else’s grief made real.
There’s not even an agenda to the Second Amendment discussions that pop up halfway through the film, when the Bardens and many others from Newtown head to Washington D.C. to lobby for stricter gun-control laws. That’s a political stance, sure, but like everything else in the documentary, it’s born from a place of coping, not righteous fury. It’s simply the next thing the survivors feel like they have to do. It’s the only thing they know how to do at that point. When the film shows a still of teenager Sarah Clements – the daughter of surviving teacher Abby Clements – standing on Capitol Hill with a protest sign, her mother points out a spark of uncertainty in her eyes. It’s as if she’s being moved by some higher power to help restore the place where she grew up. In that way, it’s an accidental political statement driven by empathy. And isn’t that how all political statements should be?
By the end of the film, none of this is presented as being a final solution. The town of Newtown will always be repairing itself, always be working to once again find wonder in what David calls the chaos of the universe, despite having undergone a tragedy that only shows its ugliest side. That makes Newtown not so much a retrospective of a tragic event as a real-time portrait of grief. A real-time portrait of a community that’s still figuring out how to heal.