These are important themes, but the father-son relationship between Donnie and Eric really provides this documentary with the warmth of seeing two Black men share a life-changing experience. I couldn’t help but smile through every second, especially during the film’s final ten minutes when their hard work comes to fruition.
Having seen director Claire Cooney’s previous shorts—intimate stories like “Runner” and “After: A Love Story”—a teen slasher being her feature directorial debut feels out of place. Written by Jose Nateras, “Departing Seniors” begins on overly talkative terms. Within the milieu of his high school, Javier (Ignacio Diaz-Silverio) is a bullied, gay, teenage outsider. Jocks like Trevor (Cameron Scott Roberts) and Brad (Sasha Kuznetsov) pick on him; the class overachiever Ginny (Maisie Merlock) finds him threatening to her success. His only real allies are his teacher, Mr. Arda (Yani Gellman), and best friend, Bianca (an invigorating Ireon Roach).
The film’s early going relies on overexplaining teenage tensions and providing unnecessary backstory for these banal characters. “Departing Seniors” doesn’t kick into gear until Javier gains psychometric abilities when the school bullies push him down the stairs. He can see the history behind any object he touches. When he grasps Bianca’s painting, for instance, he can see the moment she created it. This unique ability embroils him in the crosshairs of a masked, slashing serial killer rampaging through the school. Javier uses his premonitions, which depict his classmates’ demise, in bids to save them before it’s too late.
Taking cues from “The Dead Zone,” Cooney’s film finds a rhythm when she uses bright, spacious hallways for sites of real terror. Unfortunately, the mystery lacks intrigue, spinning its wheels toward a predictable conclusion. You come to wish “Departing Seniors” took Javier’s abilities further, that he revealed the unlikely inner truths of these characters rather than merely being a plot device to propel the puzzle further. Whenever Roach is out of frame, you pine for her energy to return. She brings a level of charm, an assuredness that this film needs. “Departing Seniors” is a fascinating trial run in feature directing for Cooney, which spells out what she might be capable of with a better script.