Thursday, August 29, 2013

SHORT TERM 12 Is a Heartbreaking, Uplifting, Must-See Indie

SHORT TERM 12 Review:

- Short Term 12 is a small story, but in its own way, its themes are almost staggeringly big in scope. This is a movie about how we as humans can end cycles of abuse and trauma. How we can help each other to overcome and move on. This is a story about finding humanity in a world that is often ugly and evil. This is also an intensely personal story. Writer/director Destin Cretton fills the film with so much lived-in detail, so much nuance, and such a feeling of authenticity that there can be no doubt that it's based on his own personal experiences. The fact that he brings those experiences to life in such a vibrant, heartfelt, and affecting manner is pretty remarkable. The end result is that Short Term 12 is an indie well worth checking out, and, surely, one of the must-see movies of 2013.

The film deals with a home for at-risk youth, depicting the lives of the teens who live there and the twenty-somethings who take care of them. One of those staff members, Grace (an amazing Brie Larson), can relate all too well to the kids she works with - she grew up in an abusive household, and still has her own lingering issues to work out. Her boyfriend, Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), works with her in the home, and himself is a former foster child. For each, the work day is filled with both fun and laughter, but also episodes that put them through the emotional grinder. The kids they work with can be difficult, unresponsive, or - worst case scenario - a danger to themselves or others. Grace, Mason, and the rest of the staff are there to supervise, guide, and to give the kids friendship and mentorship that they may have lacked on the outside. For Grace, it's an intensely personal job - the successes hit hard, and the failures hit harder. Things get even more personal for Grace when she begins working with a new teen, Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever of Justified), whose situation starkly mirrors Grace's own teenage struggles. Jayden's ongoing struggles open up old wounds for Grace - right at a time when she's looking to fully move on and start a new life with Mason.

It's been a while for me, but I spent five years working as a camp counselor, often dealing with kids with emotional and other issues. I also spent time as a teacher's aide at a Hebrew school in Boston, mostly as a one-on-one aide with kids with learning disabilities. Obviously it's not apples to apples as compared to the situations depicted in Short Term 12, but I will say that Cretton perfectly, 100% captures a certain atmosphere that you get when you put a bunch of twenty-somethings together, with kids, in an environment that's high-stress and emotionally-exhausting, but also, in its own way, fun and sort of crazy. A lot of the descriptions of Short Term 12 make it sound like a very heavy, serious film. And at times, it is. But what should also be noted is just how breezy and even funny the movie can be. Not in an over-the-top or overt manner, but in a very understated, naturalistic way. The movie brilliantly captures the kind of oddball, funny conversations that happen when a bunch of twenty-somethings are hanging out during a work-break. At the same time, it also has a sense of emotional rawness and intimacy that you rarely see at the movies. The quiet scenes of Grace and Mason together, at home, bristle with a realness and honesty that feels almost voyeuristic. Similarly, the scenes with the kids are oftentimes remarkable - a mixture of funny, heartbreaking, and startling.

I think it's telling that Cretton has a background with documentary filmmaking. His style is precise yet also surprisingly cinematic, in its own way. It's never overly showy, and that makes the emotionally-charged scenes in the film that much more striking, because they feel so real.

A great example involves the character of Marcus, played brilliantly by Keith Stanfield. Marcus is one of the oldest kids at the home. He's about to turn 18, which means he can't stay there for much longer. He's an African American teen who comes from a broken home. And the prospect of having to go back to that, after the relative comfort of his current digs, is weighing on him. Outwardly, he seems quiet and sullen. But you can tell there's a lot of inner rage, sadness, confusion, and emotion bubbling up on the inside. In one of the movie's most memorable scenes, Marcus shares a rap he's working on with Mason. As Mason plays a beat on a bongo drum, Marcus raps lyrics he's jotted down in a notebook. As tears well in his eyes, he unleashes a profane, profound storm of feelings, colored by resentment and anger. It's an incredible scene - funny, sad, mesmerizing, and moving all at once. The way Cretton captures it all - with a subtle, documentarian's eye - is what sells it. What could have been cheesy in any other film is, here, completely gutting.

Stanfield is fantastic in the film, as is Dever, as is the entire cast of kids. Each kid feels fully-formed, even the ones that don't get a ton of screentime. But Cretton has a way of giving them each a full inner life, through visual details in the rooms they live in, quick glimpses of their facial expressions, or even a sparse bit of dialogue that says volumes about who these characters are.

All that said, the breakout star of the movie has got to be Brie Larson. This is a phenomenal performance from a young actress who I was only vaguely familiar with going in. Larson is so good, so naturalistic as Grace - it's unbelievable. She crafts a character who you can't help but form a connection with. It's devastating when she falls back on old habits, and life-affirmingly satisfying when she has her breakthrough moments. Part of the resonance is that Grace is a character with a horrifyingly traumatic past that I can't even begin to relate to - but on some level, her struggle is everyone's struggle. Everyone wants to be able to reinvent themselves to become a better and stronger person than circumstances might otherwise dictate. And so Grace's small story of moving past personal trauma becomes this big - in-its-own-way-epic - story about overcoming adversity, and about learning from the mistakes of the old generation to help the new one.

Much of Short Term 12 is a collection of moments in the lives of Grace, Mason, and the kids they work with. Like I said, there is a lot of humor. John Gallagher Jr.does a great job of making Mason this sort of goofy, good-natured guy who helps keep Grace sane and functioning. And I got a kick out of Nate, the dorky newbie staffer at the home, who keeps doing and saying the wrong thing, despite good intentions.

There are some instances, however, where perhaps, Cretton strays from his own go-to aesthetic a bit, and gives in to the temptation to go for the big, sweeping uber-cinematic moment. So much of the movie feels naturalistic and authentic, that a key plot point in the third act feels like a bit much. It's dramatic, sure, but it feels more like a "movie moment" than a real-life one. Overall, the biggest strength of the movie is not in its couple of big, go-for-broke scenes, but in the quieter and more low-key ones.

To that end, I also really liked how art and creativity is such a big part of the film in general. Cretton keeps coming back to the idea of art-as-nutritious-for-the-soul. So much about each character in the movie is revealed through drawings they made, song lyrics they wrote, stories they composed, or food they baked. There's a creative spirit that runs through the movie that makes you want to go and just draw a picture or write a poem.

And that's why Short Term 12 proves to be such an uplifting movie, despite its at-times heavy subject matter. While there are setbacks and scary moments, this is ultimately a movie about the ability to turn pain into creativity and positivity, about decent people trying, and often succeeding, in making a difference in kids' lives. Anyone who's ever worked with kids, or mentored them, or who has kids, will, I think, find a lot of positivity to be gleaned from this film. Grace and Mason are the gatekeepers, the life-rafts that keep these troubled kids from going over the edge. They are, like I said, taking their own pain and channeling it into the enactment of positive change. It's not too far removed from the superhero ideal, in a weird way. Except that these aren't superheroes, just every day ones. And Short Term 12 does a wonderful job of celebrating them and telling their stories.

My Grade: A-

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