The final week of senior year of high school can be full of surprises. Memories of the times you’ve had flood the halls you’ve walked for four years. Fear and excitement for an unknown future linger over you. However, a series of deaths under suspicious circumstances is probably unlikely. Unfortunately for the protagonists of Clare Cooney’s “Departing Seniors,” this is their reality. Screened at the Music Box Theatre for the 59th Chicago International Film Festival, Cooney’s film is a fun blend of classic slasher movies and representation, resulting in a thrill ride of laughs and scares.
Javier (Ignacio Diaz-Silverio), a queer Mexican-American senior, is counting down the days to his graduation. After persistent bullying by the swimming team, Javier is eager to leave his high school days behind. His quick-witted best friend Bianca (Ireon Roach) is always at his side cracking jokes as a form of comfort. After a series of apparent suicides, the class of 2019 is rattled as they enter their final week of school. When Javier is dangerously injured after an unexpected meeting with his bullies, he winds up in the hospital with a head wound. This triggers hereditary psychic powers that allow him to see who is going to die next, revealing that suicide may not be the cause of the rising body count.
Cooney immediately jumps into her horror film with an opening kill that leaves the audience pondering all the typical slasher questions: Who is the masked killer and what is their motive? “Departing Seniors” wears its influences on its sleeve, taking inspiration from classics like “Scream” and “Mean Girls.” The horror aspects of the film are well-executed with aptly timed jump scares and some brutal kills. While the tropes are plentiful, what screenwriter Jose Nateras’s script does so well is offer them all with grounded characters.
Javier and Bianca’s friendship is central to the film. Their chemistry as best friends comes off so naturally that it feels like the audience is hanging out with them. Javier, our queer lead character, is also romanically pursuing William (Ryan Foreman) after his secret affair with swimmer Brad (Sasha Kuznetsov) has fallen apart. As with every slasher, all of these characters are suspects, adding to the overall suspense of the film. With genuine moments of connection and emotion between the characters, it turns tragic when they begin to get killed off one by one. This feels like a departure from many horror films, since so much time is spent giving the characters time to express their personalities. Even the smaller side characters feel fully formed, and don’t exist as mere meat for the massacre.
Balancing the scares with laughs, the film triumphantly delivers the comedy while maintaining its grounded feel. Javier’s bizarre facial expressions each time he suddenly experiences a premonition is a credit to Diaz-Silverio’s talent. However, Roach’s wise-cracking Bianca is the scene stealer. She constantly lets off comments that either have nothing to do with what Javier is saying, or is precisely on the nose about their present situation. The miraculous thing about the film is how well it can balance the humor and the scares, combining them to create an emotional central story with Javier.
Though Javier’s love life isn’t a main plot of the film, having a queer man of color as a main character in a horror film – any film for that matter – is special. Supported by a diverse cast of talented actors, the characters feel refreshing for the horror genre. Many of the classics we love consist of mostly white casts with token characters of color. “Departing Seniors” holds diversity front and center while never drawing attention to that aspect. It approaches Javier’s confrontation of his horrific bullying with humor and levity. Allowing Javier to solve the murders before it’s too late while also pursuing his crush and standing up to his bullies feels like the perfect combination of horror and teen comedy – a difficult feat to accomplish.
Cooney’s film feels new and exciting. Her ability to blend Nateras’s script seamlessly into a world that is rooted in reality is impressive. Backed by an incredible cast, “Departing Seniors” manages to be both a horror movie and a comedy, without every sacrificing one for the other. It is fun, it is smart, and it holds at its center a story of representation that we rarely get to see in these types of films. “Departing Seniors” marks an impressive entry from Clare Cooney, an exciting young talent whose next project should be highly anticipated.