Friday, September 6, 2013

Short Term 12 (2013) – Review

Review: Short Term 12 is an intimate and moving character drama, built on a brilliant central performance. The film is about Grace, a supervisor at Short Term 12 (a facility that helps wayward youths while they are being placed for foster care). She devotes her life to helping young people, but it is her own issues that start to bring her down.

It is clear right from the beginning that Short Term 12 is a very personal film for writer-director Destin Cretton. He loves these characters and respects them immensely, which translates to the audience as well pulling them in. Yet, he is also not afraid to portray them as complex. Grace and her boyfriend Mason (another employee at the facility) are presented as generally nice people, but they are not without their flaws. Grace is practically drowning in internal emotional drama linked to her past, but is afraid to let anyone in which almost destroys everything in her life. However, at work, she thrives. She is kind and understanding, yet firm enough to command respect. Grace must be these kids’ parent figure (both in a loving and authoritative way), friend, and independent third party evaluator all at the same time.

 It is an interesting aspect to the film that both Grace and Mason are products of the system they now work in. This seems to link back to Cretton’s affection for his characters and the film feeling very personal. The system has worked (more or less) for them, and now they are trying to help kids make it just like they were helped. Cretton’s approach to the system however is not completely rosy. There are still moments of bureaucracy and general apathy that does plague social services, but the film is surprisingly void of the typical cynicism that usually overwhelmingly characterizes social services and their employees. These characters truly care about the kids, which is infective. The audience is completely pulled in and cares about them too (the good with the bad).

However, a negative argument for the film can also be made here. The kids at Short Term 12 are all good; it is just that they have been subjected to bad situations and circumstances. None of the kids in the film are ever portrayed as being just a bad kid. They are all products of destructive homes that have weighed upon them. In this way, Cretton has taken a romanticized (and maybe simplistic) approach to the material, but again this gets back to this being a personal film. He does not want to just make another cynical film about how society is crumbling and no one cares and no one can really makes a difference and all the kids are bad apples anyway. He is more interested in showcasing the positive work that people like Grace do each day, and the way they can affect the lives of damaged children who need something positive in their lives for a change. And in this way, the film is very powerful.

The next question then becomes, why not just make a documentary about real social workers helping kids in a similar facility? Well, Cretton chose to tell the fictional story of Grace because he wanted a complex protagonist with a narrative that perfectly mirrors the experience of a young girl (Jayden) that she meets and attempts to help (when Jayden has just been shuttled around as a problem child). Grace is just as damaged as the kids she looks after; she has just learned to hide it better. Her emotional dramatic arc is very compelling because Cretton structures the narrative very effectively. He first pulls the audience in with her charm and ability to capably do her job, and then once the audience likes her and is invested he allows her own issues to begin to spill out. And while her issues stem from an abusive past, they are still relatable for the audience on a basic human level. The viewer cares about Grace and wants to see her come out the other side okay, and in this way the film connects on a deeper emotional level with the audience than a documentary probably could have.

Ultimately, as good of a character drama as Short Term 12 is (it is an excellent one), it is the film’s optimism and hope for the future that really allows it to soar. It is a film about damaged people and the ugliness of humanity (as all these kids come from broken homes with abusive and/or absent parents), and yet it is beautiful, charming, and confidently trusting that tomorrow will be better for its characters. This leaves the audience feeling good as it is a refreshing change of pace from both the general thematic attitude of cinema lately (cynicism, pain, greed, hate, violence, etc.) and what they hear in the news every day. It is nice to see the small successes and the good people do too.

Short Term 12 is this year’s best film to date because of its ability to be an utterly moving character drama, while telling a story rich with cheerful anticipation for the future (seemingly embodied by the character of Mason) which is sorely lacking in modern culture and cinema. I highly encourage everyone who can to see it.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Destin Cretton makes his debut on a bigger cinematic stage with Short Term 12 (his second feature), a film that should compete for Independent Spirit Awards (and maybe Oscars if it can gain some more exposure). His passion for the characters, subject matter, and world of the film is evident throughout, and the audience picks up on it and follows suit caring about the characters and issues in this film. While the film does not directly call for action or incite action in its viewers, it does ask its viewers to be good decent people in their lives, which is a noble pursuit for a film (which is still chiefly concerned with entertaining its audience first). Cretton has announced himself as not just a skillful director, garnering wonderful performances, but a brilliant writer as well. The script and its narrative structure are tight and emotionally involving. It is fantastic work and I very much looking forward to seeing what Cretton does next.

Composer Joel P. West’s score works well with the tone of the film, complimenting the dramatic arc of the narrative and characters. Brett Pawlak’s cinematography is particularly good. He utilizes a lot of natural lighting sources, which helps give the film a very grounded and realistic look, matching the tone. Working with Cretton, his camera is also consistently placed in a very intimate manner, allowing the audience to feel like they are a part of the emotional struggles of the characters as an involved member and not merely a disconnected voyeur, which is a very effective dramatic tool Cretton employs (the audience feels like they are in it, which opens them up to be more empathetic, greatly benefitting both the dramatic arc of the film and its characters as well as the social aspect of the film). Visually, the film can feel a little gritty in moments, stemming from the emotional turmoil and natural lighting, but more often it is very beautiful. Rachel Myers’s production design also gives the film a very realistic feel. The characters also benefit from her great set decoration when it comes to the way in which their rooms are designed.

Short Term 12 is built on its performances, being a character drama. Rami Malek (he works well as an outsider coming into the world, mirroring the audience) and Stephanie Beatriz are good in small supporting roles as the other two employees of the facility. Keith Stanfield is very good as Marcus, a troubled young man who is not ready to leave the protection of Short Term 12 and face the real world as he turns eighteen. Kaitlyn Dever is also very good as Jayden, a young girl that Grace sees a lot of herself in. Dever is wonderful at playing Jayden as being tough yet fragile. John Gallagher Jr. (who some will recognize as Jim Harper from The Newsroom) is great as Mason. He is a breath of fresh air in a world overrun with seemingly emotionally crippling injustice. Brie Larson is brilliant as Grace, giving a whirlwind, breakthrough, and completely compelling performance. It is the kind of work that demands people take notice of her as an actress. Her performance is skillfully layered. She is very guarded, keeping everything in tight, but it all just becomes too much. Her pain becomes the audiences’ pain, her joy the audiences’ joy. It would be shameful to not see her name come awards season.

Summary & score: Short Term 12 is an emotionally difficult character drama as it deals with highly damaged people; people that it makes its viewers care deeply about. But its optimism is infective, refreshing and beautiful. 9/10 

No comments:

Post a Comment