In the canon of high school-set slashers, Departing Seniors is a moderate achiever — the middle of the pack. Jose Nateras’ screenplay massages LGBTQ+ themes into an adorable-awkward-angsty teen romance threatened by deadly obstacles (outside cruel bigotry). It’s refreshingly genuine in terms of treating queer relationships with normalcy, but schoolyard slasher tension dulls without sharp execution. Director Clare Cooney’s feature debut is more competent than confident, relying on select performances and cheeky metatextual callbacks to overcompensate for a less successful balancing of subgenres.
It’s seven days until graduation at Springhurst High, and Javier (Ignacio Diaz-Silverio) is just trying to survive until college. He’s gay, he’s Mexican-American, and he’s surrounded by small-minded jocks who mock anything outside their suburban status quo. Javier’s bestie Bianca (Ireon Roach) is his rock, willing to beat an athlete bloody if they utter a single insult. Unfortunately, when Bianca isn’t around after school, Javier is bullied into falling down a staircase and smacking his head — which unlocks psychic powers that can see people’s pasts and futures when instigated by physical touch. It’s a bizarre ability that should make his last few days in Springhurst a little more interesting, especially when lifeless student bodies pile up.
Ignacio Diaz-Silverio and Ireon Roach are the standout stars of Departing Seniors, bonded by their mutual disdain for Springhurst’s embarrassingly primitive population. Where surrounding castmates read like bland caricatures, Javier and Bianca could hold their own in Mean Girls or Clueless. Ryan Foreman also deserves a brief spotlight as Will, Javier’s shy band-geek love interest, for igniting sparks in his interactions with Diaz-Silverio’s confidently open protagonist. Classroom banter or hallway goof-offs can feel as forced as out-loud references to the Scream series, but the trio of Javier, Bianca, and Will strive to elevate a malnourished slasher.
Departing Seniors dwells on the dramatic entanglement of Javier’s hallucinations, queerphobia, and general teenage dilemmas, sometimes forgetting to be a slasher. Cooney and Nateras wink at the audience with audible and visual nods to high school cinema royalty from the Grease series to Wes Craven’s Woodsboro massacres — but don’t faithfully maintain their own slasher architecture. Cooney emphasizes the importance of queer representation in horror but gets lost in the power of anti-bullying agendas. It’s almost thirty minutes into the film before the masked killer starts causing consistent havoc (in comparison), taking a lengthy break after slicing fresh wounds in the opening scene. There’s an imbalance when contrasting Javier’s high school interactions out of a The CW show against death sequences that skirt around gore whenever possible. One might argue that’s because the true horror of Departing Seniors is the ridicule and degradation Javier has to deal with. While appropriate, that doesn’t excuse the slasher machinations for being clunky and uninspired.
Cooney admirably fights against a smaller budget, but the film’s shortcomings are too evident. Javier’s visions are a technicolor blur with misguided editing that’s choppier than hurricane waters, for one. Where other independent filmmakers can smooth out rougher low-cost edges, Departing Seniors languishes as a mid-tier horror experience that’s better when it’s not trying to be a progressive and punchy slasher. Cooney struggles with “heavy” action sequences and doesn’t quite grasp the film’s big picture, failing to control a fluctuating tone that never quite fastens its scarier elements into place. Cooney’s able to coax some decent performances from her talented leads, but beyond that, can’t prevent the final product from feeling rigid and mechanical.
It’s a shame because the allure of a queer slasher that’s both vulnerable and vicious isn’t paid off in Departing Seniors. The body count is weak, there’s insufficient attention paid to the blending of coming-of-age frustrations and psycho killer masterplans, supernatural premonitions aren’t explored to the fullest – Departing Seniors is one of those genre hybrids that almost feels like it doesn’t want to be a horror flick. Ignacio Diaz-Silverio and Ireon Roach are your reasons to give this one a shot if you’re even the slightest bit interested, but don’t expect teen slasher excellence. Cooney never decides what kind of queer genre story her film wants to be — the rom-com, the mutilator — and that’s a sin too few emotionally-driven horror grab bags overcome.