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It’s not your job to interpret tears.

Short Term 12
(2013)

Destin Daniel Cretton’s film, based on his experiences working in a group facility for troubled teenagers, is an expansion of his 2009 short of the same name. Even given the best of intentions, it would be very easy to misjudge the tone with this kind of subject matter, leading to results so raw and heavy-going they are difficult to endure or ones that over-indulge the opportunities for melodrama. For the most part Cretton’s choices are astute and subtle. He opts for underplaying and sensitivity where it would be easy to choose bombast and preachiness. It’s only during the final act that he goes astray, succumbing to the urge to inject several over-dramatic developments that slightly mar the preceding fine character work.


Grace (Brie Larson, outstanding, but then so is every member of the cast) is the supervisor at the titular home. Remarkably able and assured at dealing with the residents, most of them victims of abuse, she is less capable in coming to terms with and confronting her own past. This comes into sharp focus when Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever, just as good here as she was in Justified) arrives, whose experiences bear stark similarities to her own. The responses it triggers in Grace put her at loggerheads with her boss Jack (Frantz Turner) and create tensions with boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), to whom she cannot open up. The pressures of an unexpected pregnancy and her father’s imminent release from prison gradually further push Grace to breaking point.


If this sounds as if it might become overwrought, for the most part Cretton treads softly. Partly this is down to the restrained performances of Larson and Gallagher Jr. Partly it’s because Cretton maintains a focus on the day-to-day environment of the home. We experience the stories of other residents including Marcus (Lakeith Lee Stanfield), fearful at the prospect of leaving on turning 18, and new co-worker Nate (Rami Malek), who must balance his natural instincts for empathy and friendship with the need to show reserve and authority.


Cretton utilises handheld camera throughout and, in contrast to many a director’s arbitrary decision making in this regard, it’s the correct approach. Again, this is down to the mediated approach the writer-director takes. He’s interested in creating a feeling of immediacy and authenticity, but not so much that it unbalances his goal. There can be little doubt that stories from such a facility could be unbearable, and Cretton is no doubt aware of this. It’s surely why, for all the trauma of the residents (and the workers) he is careful to imbue the proceedings with a quiet optimism. This is a worthwhile and enormously valuable occupation and service and Cretton is clear that it can make a difference, however incremental. Joel P West’s score, occasionally putting me in mind of the ambience of early Hal Hartley, also maintains a tone that refuses the possibility of hopelessness winning out.


It’s where his dual role script-writer hangs large that Cretton perhaps overplays his hand. We aren’t talking about Dead Poets Society levels of indulgence, but because the general tone is so stripped down, anything that isn’t completely naturalistic translates as a over-cooked. There are a couple of book-ended stories told by Mason that are perfect examples of how to deliver clearly scripted dialogue. They have sense of actual events retold, and Gallagher Jr.’s delivery enforces that. Cretton also achieves an appealing symmetry with the “As it starts, so it continues” of the movie’s opening and closing; no matter who goes through the doors of Short Term 12, there is never any final resolution. But he stumbles with Jayden’s octopus story, so calculated in its construction that it throws the viewer out of any appreciation of its resonance. And Grace’s visit to Jayden’s father’s house is no less unlikely for Jayden drawing attention to her behaviour (“That’s a little extreme, don’t you think?”)


Nevertheless, taken as a whole this is an acutely well-observed, wonderfully performed and achingly affecting picture. It will be interesting to see what Cretton does next, as semi-autobiographical beginnings such as this don’t necessarily lend themselves to career permanence, but on this evidence he has a powerful and intimate voice.


****  

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