‘Midsummer in Newtown’ and the Difficulty of Reviewing Certain Documentaries

It’s not personal. But it will often look that way.

One of the biggest problems with documentary criticism is the reviews that go after what a film is about rather than how it’s about it. Criticism can address and engage with the subject matter of art, but first and foremost it’s supposed to be the quality of the form of delivery we’re writing on. The problem typically relates to reviews of issue films but can extend to criticisms of real life characters and the choices they make.

Because a lot of positive documentary reviews appear to be endorsements of a cause or political affiliation or some other subject, and in turn negative reviews can appear to be in opposition, it is difficult to review films about good people who deserve a better outlet. Especially if those people have been through a tragedy and are on screen talking about their loss. It’s not their fault they’re in a bad film.

For example, this week I screened the documentary Midsummer in Newtown for review, and I don’t think it’s a good film. At first I wanted to leave it be without doing any more harm to the parents and siblings of children killed during the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting. By not reviewing the doc, I would be not recommending it, though I also wouldn’t be discouraging people from seeing it either.

Do we critics owe it to our readers to weigh in on everything, though? By being silent is that giving a film a pass and yielding in a way that makes me assist in the film’s being seen? Fortunately, I’m not typically about consumer advocacy. I don’t like to dissuade people from seeing a film they want to see unless I feel very strongly against it. Midsummer in Newtown is terribly unfocused as a piece of storytelling but it’s harmless. I don’t really care if anyone pays to see it, with money or time.

And it came in second place for the Audience Award at the Tribeca Film Festival last year, so clearly there are people who think it is worthwhile. It has also received mostly positive reviews from critics, though I believe many of them are just simple passes that show support and sympathy for the people on screen (before this review was added, the doc had a 100% score on Rotten Tomatoes — Metacritic’s score of 66 is more trustworthy).

I don’t know that I can even go that far. Midsummer in Newtown isn’t merely another documentary on the Sandy Hook tragedy. It follows the production of a musical version of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream put on at the school by outsiders from Broadway featuring Newtown children as a way of healing. The film doesn’t do a good job communicating how this came to be or why the show also features professional actors alongside the students.

The specific students put in the spotlight of the doc, however, are pretty wonderful. And the adults, including one couple who don’t have anything to do with the show but have their own side story involving an artistic means of coping with the death of one of their two kids, are totally affecting, expectedly so. I definitely don’t want to say that what they share in front of the camera, directly or while being observed, isn’t important. It certainly is.

Newtown is important. The Sandy Hook shooting is important. The lives of those impacted are important. Putting on a show to help the people in the aftermath maybe was important, it’s hard to tell exactly how much here. The film that documents that show just isn’t important. It’s the kind of doc where people mistake it for achieving what the thing its presenting achieves. The show is about a community healing. Midsummer in Newtown is not.

I am not a fan of the more noted recent doc about Sandy Hook, Newtown, either. That one is directly concentrated on the shooting and the aftermath, including the political issue it fueled. I couldn’t bring myself to review it because I had too personal a reaction, even crying during some of the interviews with parents of the victims. As a parent and having grown up near Newtown, the story affects me. But the doc is still very flawed in form.

Midsummer in Newtown isn’t as heavy, and so it’s not as much of a tearjerker. There’s more uplift in the feeling of watching survivors of Sandy Hook overcome their grief and shyness and put on the musical (titled “A Rockin’ Midsummer Nights Dream”). Still, it often just seems like we’re watching any teen theater production during those moments, and then watching any outlet for grieving testimonial in the other, tragedy-centered scenes. There’s an attempt to relate themes of the play to Sandy Hook but not well.

There is one moment that stands out for its emotional power and that’s when one of the kids breaks down after the show has ended, upset that the whole experience is over. So it worked but also didn’t, not in a lasting way for the boy. The question of the musical’s success is raised, and it’s a hard one for us to answer, yet the film doesn’t go anywhere further with that idea, if it even recognizes it. It’s just there, and it’s considerable.

Should I have to preface or excuse this review for its negative response and reassure that kid and his parents and the other children and adults who bare their hearts and souls on stage and on camera that this criticism with the film has nothing to do with them? Should I worry about hurting anyone’s feelings save for maybe those of the director, Lloyd Kramer? No, but I do anyway. I hope this film is a good thing for everyone involved. I just can’t promise it has much value for any audience outside of that.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.