Departing Seniors (review) – Frightfest 2023

Departing Seniors is awaiting a UK and International release date.

High school, or secondary school, sucks! While we may often look back on this time with rose-tinted specs, airbrushing away the shit in favour of those brief moments of joy, the truth is unavoidable; high school is the equivalent of The Hunger Games. It’s a dog-eat-dog world where individuality is often stamped on, conformity is welcomed, and difference is seen as a weakness rather than a strength. Let’s be honest: none of us walk away completely unscathed. It’s the horror of the high school that sits centre stage in Clare Cooney’s fabulous feature debut, Departing Seniors, written by Jose Nateras.

For LGBTQ+ teens and those from ethnically diverse groups, high school can be even more of a tightrope walk than for others. They often find themselves trapped on the fringes of school life, never truly accepted, and never allowed the space to be free in an environment that rejects their difference and torments their individuality, culture or race. Departing Seniors not only understands this experience but places it centre stage.

Our story opens as a jock torments a boy in the school swimming pool after hours. The pool is empty as Phil Casey repeatedly pushes the boy’s head underwater. But while Casey may think he is alone, a cloaked figure wearing a handmade drama club mask stands watching, knife in hand, waiting to strike out at the bully by slitting his wrists once the boy he is tormenting is out of sight. Casey’s death looks like a suicide and is treated as such, with students feigning emotion for a guy who made many of their lives miserable. But this was no suicide, as a mysterious figure stalks the corridors of Springhurst High, intent on dispatching the school bullies who torment those who are different.

Seven days are left until graduation as we join the confident and witty Javier (Ignacio Diaz-Silverio) and his best friend, the fiery, loving and brutally honest Bianca (Ireon Roach). Both are outsiders in the High School jungle; Javier is Mexican and gay, while Bianca is a black, proud, confident woman who doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Neither Javier nor Bianca are victims of the bullshit around them, but that does not stop Javier from suffering the endless homophobic taunts of closeted, confused and angry Brad (Sasha Kuznetsov), Trevor (Cameron Scott Roberts) and his girlfriend Ginny (Maisie Merlock) even if he gives as good as he gets. However, Javier’s situation is further complicated by the fact that he had a secret affair with Brad, something no one else knows, not even Bianca.

Javier’s English teacher, Mr. Arda (Yani Gellman), appears to be the only person who understands the Wild West of high school life, offering support, advice and care when things get tricky. At the same time, William (Ryan Foreman), a quiet student who transferred to the school the semester before, would like to get to know Javier as more than just a friend. But when Brad, Trevor and Ginny set up Javier by pretending to be William, Javier’s final days of High School are about to get really weird.

Javier is pushed down a flight of stairs after outing Brad in front of his mates, banging his head on the concrete floor before waking up in the hospital with a freaky, strange new power that allows him to see the past and the future through touch. But as he returns to school and attempts to explain his new power to Bianca, the masked killer hides in the shadows, and with his new sixth sense, Javier is the only person who can stop them.

Departing Seniors is a love letter to the slasher whodunnit of Scream and Cutting Class, the hormonal horror of Carrie and the supernatural fear of The Dead Zone. Equally, it is a clever homage to Michael Lehmann’s Heathers. Like Heathers, Cooney’s film joyously places the high school experience under the microscope, unpicking the bullying, anxiety, frustration and conformity at the heart of the adolescent experience. Here murders are disguised as suicide, and Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” sits at the heart of discussions on power, rebellion, and an unquenchable desire for a morally twisted revenge. Add to this the delightfully wicked humour of Jose Nateras’ screenplay and an assured commentary on conformity versus individuality, and Departing Seniors’ delightful homage to Lehmann’s movie is complete. But while it may celebrate the history of horror and the darkness of the high school experience, Departing Seniors manages to create a genuinely fresh take on the whodunnit full to the brim with dark humour.

A truly outstanding cast sits at the heart of this enjoyable and fresh slice of high school horror. Ignacio Diaz-Silverio is nothing short of amazing as Javier, while Ireon Roach’s comic timing as Bianca is sublime. Add a truly remarkable ensemble, and Departing Seniors shines brighter than many of its contemporaries. Equally impressive is Clare Cooney’s direction. Cooney keeps the film’s pace tight, allows the characters to shine, and joyously plays with audience expectations of who the masked killer might be before offering us an unveiling that carries broader messages on the lasting effects of high school bullying. Even if you think you know where Departing Seniors is heading, you may be surprised by the final reveal. As a result, Departing Seniors offers us something the Scream franchise hasn’t managed to deliver for some time: a fascinating psychological twist.

Deliciously dark, distinctly different, defiantly queer and delightfully diverse. Departing Seniors pays homage to the horror of the past while embracing something new, fresh and creative through a brilliant screenplay, stunning central performances and assured direction. The result is one of the best high school horrors of the past five years and possibly the birth of a new franchise that places diversity centre stage. So, move over, Ghostface; there’s a new masked killer in town.

  • Departing Seniors | United States | 2023


Deliciously dark, distinctly different, defiantly queer and delightfully diverse. Departing Seniors pays homage to the horror of the past while embracing something new, fresh and creative through a brilliant screenplay, stunning central performances and assured direction.

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