Saturday, October 26, 2013

Short Term 12 transcends past the level of cliche indie drama

There's a specific type of independent film that seems to flood Sundance every year.  You know the traits: low-key, low-budget, handheld camerawork, dour characters, miserablist tone.  Far too many filmmakers go this route, and it's easy for those films to get lost in the mix when they all seem to blend together after a while.  In order to stand out from the pack, this type of indie drama has to really bring something extra to the table.  Apparently Short Term 12, the feature-length debut of director Destin Daniel Cretton, succeeded on that front.  When it premiered at Sundance back in January, it was met with glowing reviews, and became a film I was hotly anticipating.  Now that it's finally come to theaters here, I can attest that Short Term 12 is much better than its film festival baiting premise would imply.

The film opens on a scene of a man named Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) regaling his coworkers with an amusing anecdote, only to be interrupted by the blaring sounds of a siren and a kid running towards a fence.  This is just another day at Short Term 12, the foster care facility for at-risk youths who are in between homes.  They all suffer from a litany of problems -- depression, anger issues, bouts of self-abuse -- and the film focuses on a select few of these kids.  There's Marcus (Keith Stanfield), whose 18th birthday is quickly approaching, signifying the point where he has to be released from the facility and sent out into a world he's not ready for.  Then there's Sammy, who copes with the loss of his sister with fits of rage and frequent attempts to escape the facility.  And early into the film there's the introduction of Jayden (the terrific Kaitlyn Dever), the newest resident at Short Term 12, whose father shipped her off to stay there on weekdays after she became too much of a hassle to deal with.  The film neatly structures itself around the arcs of these characters, telling their stories in a clear and complete fashion without ever feeling cluttered.

But Short Term 12 is really about Grace (Brie Larson), one of the twenty-somethings who supervises the facility.  Her job description, as she tells one of the new workers, is not to be a parent or a therapist, but to make these kids' lives as comfortable as possible in this transition stage of indefinite length.  Although she's helping them with their rough lives, things aren't going so well for her either.  Early in the film we see her go to a clinic to get the results for a pregnancy test, and she seems anything but pleased when they come back positive.  The film is pretty upfront about the backstories and psychologies of the kids at the facility, but it's more interested in playing the long game when it comes to Grace.  She's presented to us as someone who is very guarded, but the "why" of it all is meted out slowly.  Larson is incredible here -- her performance is up there with Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine as one of the best of the year.  Grace pours all her energy into her work as a way of running away from her own personal troubles, and Larson is heartbreaking throughout every moment of Grace running on fumes.

The film doesn't pull punches about its subject matter either.  Cretton films the scenes of characters breaking down and lashing out with a raw intensity that's at once frightening and sad.  These are teens with deep problems, and Grace's own issues are there to show that that damage doesn't just go away easily.  Her past informs the deep anxiety she feels towards her impending motherhood.  In fact, parentage plays a large role in almost every one of the threads in the film.  There's an underlying point being made about how the actions of parents can have a harmful effect on children.  In the midst of dealing with all of these children who come from abusive homes, it's no wonder why Grace is so hesitant to become a parent and bring a child of her own into the world.  Yet the film shies away from the usual indie drama bleakness by providing a little bit of hope and beauty.  By showing Mason, a former product of the foster care system, now as an adult who has his life together, you can tell the film has a real belief in what Grace and the others are doing to help these kids.  There are ills in the world that will always exist on a macro level, but sometimes you have to find small victories under dire circumstances.  Short Term 12 does just that, and the result is one of the most heart-rending and powerful films of the year.

No comments:

Post a Comment