HBO’s Documentary Short Song of Parkland Struggles to Find a Through Line in Life After a Mass Shooting

TV Reviews Song of Parkland
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After watching Song of Parkland, I feel unclean. It’s a documentary short about the survivors of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, and how they’re using drama to cope with their trauma. They have a brave, kind, awesome drama teacher, and they are using their training to make their voices heard and it’s all extremely laudable and noble. So I feel like a bit of a traitor for pointing out that just because the subjects of a documentary are good is no guarantee at all that the film will be.

Sorry, it’s not.

The tragedy that took place in Parkland, Fla. on February 14, 2018 was just that, a tragedy. No one should have to experience that, but these kids did, and their fortitude and resilience are applause-worthy and inspirational. No sane person would dispute that. So, like, no offense meant. Song of Parkland, a half-hour documentary film about MSD’s drama students, some of whom are among the vocal gun control advocates you’ve seen deified and demonized on social media platforms, comes to HBO on the eve of the shooting’s one-year anniversary, and people who want to understand more about that act and its aftermath might be tuning in to learn more than what we saw in mass media coverage at the time.

What you will see in Song of Parkland, unfortunately, is inchoate fluff. Even at its very modest runtime, the film can’t seem to keep its attention on anything approaching a through line. It skips from subject to subject almost randomly, sets up one premise and defects to another, and remains remarkably free of depth. Interview footage featuring Melody Herzfeld, the school’s drama instructor, is affecting and cogent—she’s probably a really freaking cool teacher—but her own poise and emotional directness aren’t sufficient to carry a documentary, and they shouldn’t have to be. At first, it seems like we’re going to see a film about the shooting, but that’s not what happens. Then it seems like director Amy Schatz is gearing up to track how the drama department students got back on their feet. (I think this is the film’s actual object, but Schatz offers signposts and shorthand instead of real content). Then it seems like we’re following the drama students through the performance of a really important, seminal, super-powerful production, but that fizzes out and we end on a totally different “song of Parkland,” in which a group of students belt out the opening tune from Rent in a special performance at the Tonys. (Way to take the wind out of the sails of the brave Vikings in that school musical, guys).

Herzfeld was honored at the Tony ceremony for a reason: She saved the lives of 65 students during the massacre and stewarded many of them through creative projects meant to help them process their grief. That is a big deal, a noble endeavor, and a subject well worth spending screen time on, but in Song of Parkland you almost have to read it in between the lines, as the film flits from kids marching at anti-gun violence rallies to young performers rehearsing a musical to one student’s songwriting project (she reads her lyrics off her phone) to the stage at the Tony Awards, with Ming-na Wen introducing the performers. It’s as if Schatz concluded in advance that because the backstory is tragic and dramatic and has been in the public eye, the people who lived through it will somehow do the work of creating an organized and meaningful document about its aftermath. I could easily spin off into a tizzy about “emotional labor” and the dark sketchy underbelly of social media prominence, but I’m not going to do that. It’s enough to say that Song of Parkland is a disappointing film about a terrible thing that happened, and no more.

Song of Parkland premieres tonight at 7 p.m. on HBO.

Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.