There never seems to be a shortage of the iconic slasher-style horror and thriller films, year after year. Whether you’re looking at a big blockbuster franchise like Scream or something a little less well-known like Night Swim, the slasher genre is alive and well, unlike its films’ unfortunate victims. And whether you like them or not, it’s hard to ignore the vast diversity of ways these films set up their antagonists, their victims, the method of execution, and even the motive. It may seem silly to some but to others, it’s an art, no matter how campy, obvious, or ridiculous it appears. In the midst of this genre is the independent movie from Dark Sky Films, Departing Seniors, directed by Clare Cooney.
Departing Seniors tells the tale of Javier, a gay Mexican-American high school senior who has experienced relentless bullying by his fellow classmates. However, when an incident goes too far and lands Javier in the hospital, he begins to experience strange sensations and visions. One by one, his senior classmates begin to cease breathing, but why or how, no one truly knows. The film stars Ignacio Diaz-Silverio, Ireon Roach, Yani Gellman, Cameron Scott Roberts, Maisie Merlock, Ryan Foreman, and Sasha Kuznetsov.
Much like any horror or slasher film, it’s completely natural to have a preference over how a story is told. This could be in terms of the way an antagonist is revealed, whether vague or exposed, or it could be how quickly the audience if dragged into the whole purpose of the film. Departing Seniors immediately cuts to the chase when it comes to introducing what the threat is along with a vague idea of what their calling card is. However, seeing what we’re up against within the first five minutes of the film is what sets it up to be an entirely predictable. Despite the identity of our mystery killer being kept hidden till the end, there are too many identifying factors involved that eliminate any sense of intrigue and mystery. And frankly, isn’t that part of the point of these kind of stories?
Outside of the film’s predictability, Departing Seniors lacks any bit of suspense to keep the momentum going and to maintain the engagement of its audience. If we’ve already picked apart who the threat might be, that can be forgiven. The film avoids any creativity in creating tense moments to get us on the edge and introduces ideas that could easily be built upon, only to be forgotten and never utilized to its full potential. Unfortunately, it feels deliberate and completely without reason or rhyme, except for the possibility of trying to keep the story under a 90 minute runtime. It isn’t until the film’s final twenty minutes that it picks up in pace, gets you involved in who is going to make it, if anyone will, and what the final end result will be. Frankly, for such a quick-paced story that provides little to no character development, and rapid fire exposition of incidents, Departing Seniors may have served better as a short film rather than a feature length movie.
However, this isn’t to say that the film is without its strengths or positives. If we set aside its glaring issues, there is plenty to appreciate from an independent movie that strives to tell a story at all, mediocre or awards-worthy. And it’s clear this film isn’t about awards but more so about giving people a chance to perform and be a part of a work of art. Departing Seniors utilizes a small but diverse cast of characters, ranging from Black and Mexican-American leads to queer characters. One could say there’s less to lose with an indie filmmaker by casually making such choices but let’s be honest: it’s a step in the right direction no matter how small or big a project may be. And how often do we see people of color or queer characters be assigned the lead in campy films under the horror, slasher, and thriller genres? If anything, we need more of these.
And what really pulls it together is the way the story and character relationships feel reflective of how high schools kids behave toward one another. Even if there is very little development of any of these characters, there is still some understanding of who they are to each other. Racism and homophobia in the form of micro-aggressions and obvious bullying are also displayed consistently throughout the film, giving it a bit more substance and motive, but not nearly enough to save the film. If there’s one additional gripe to explore with Departing Seniors, it’s the casual lack of nuance and showcasing of moments framed to be self-harm and suicide. Such topics need to be handled with grace and it doesn’t feel like a campy slasher film is the best setting to do exactly that. So, if this is a movie you intend to see, be cautious of the self-harm and suicide presented in the film.
Overall, Departing Seniors isn’t a movie that I can confidently recommend to anyone and everyone. While there are a few positives that shine warmly with this film, there are far more issues to be had. If you’re looking to support more independent filmmakers with very diverse characters or you just can’t get enough of the average thriller or slasher movie, then by all means, check out Departing Seniors. I wish I could say in this instance that it’s a pleasure to celebrate mediocrity when it comes to marginalized groups, and usually it is. But the lack of entertaining moments, carelessness for certain topics, and missed cultural opportunities topped with an easy-to-guess mystery just doesn’t cut it for me.
Departing Seniors receives 1.5 out of 5 Samosas.
Departing Seniors is now playing in select theaters and is available to stream on Apple TV+.
Runtime: 1h 25m
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