Skip to main content

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.


****  

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You're not only wrong. You're wrong at the top of your voice.

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
I’ve seen comments suggesting that John Sturges’ thriller hasn’t aged well, which I find rather mystifying. Sure, some of the characterisations border on the cardboard, but the director imbues the story with a taut, economical backbone. 

Old Boggy walks on Lammas Eve.

Jeeves and Wooster 2.5: Kidnapped  (aka The Mysterious Stranger)
Kidnapped continues the saga of Chuffnell Hall. Having said of 2.4 that the best Wodehouse adaptations tend to stick closely to the text, this one is an exception that proves the rule, diverging significantly yet still scoring with its highly preposterous additions.

Jeeves: Tis old boggy. He be abroad tonight. He be heading for the railway station.
Gone are many of the imbroglios involving Stoker and Glossop (the estimable Roger Brierley), including the contesting of the former’s uncle’s will. Also gone, sadly, is the inebriated Brinkley throwing potatoes at Stoker, which surely would have been enormous fun. Instead, we concentrate on Bertie being locked aboard Stoker’s yacht in order to secure his marriage to Pauline (as per the novel), Chuffy tailing Pauline in disguise (so there’s a different/additional reason for Stoker to believe Bertie and she spent the night together, this time at a pub en route to Chufnell Hall) and …

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

They say if we go with them, we'll live forever. And that's good.

Cocoon (1985)
Anyone coming across Cocoon cold might reasonably assume the involvement of Steven Spielberg in some capacity. This is a sugary, well-meaning tale of age triumphing over adversity. All thanks to the power of aliens. Substitute the elderly for children and you pretty much have the manner and Spielberg for Ron Howard and you pretty much have the approach taken to Cocoon. Howard is so damn nice, he ends up pulling his punches even on the few occasions where he attempts to introduce conflict to up the stakes. Pauline Kael began her review by expressing the view that consciously life-affirming movies are to be consciously avoided. I wouldn’t go quite that far, but you’re definitely wise to steel yourself for the worst (which, more often than not, transpires).

Cocoon is as dramatically inert as the not wholly dissimilar (but much more disagreeable, which is saying something) segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie directed by Spielberg (Kick the Can). There, OAPs rediscover their in…

I take Quaaludes 10-15 times a day for my "back pain", Adderall to stay focused, Xanax to take the edge off, part to mellow me out, cocaine to wake me back up again, and morphine... Well, because it's awesome.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Along with Pain & Gain and The Great Gatsby, The Wolf of Wall Street might be viewed as the completion of a loose 2013 trilogy on the subject of success and excess; the American Dream gone awry. It’s the superior picture to its fellows, by turns enthralling, absurd, outrageous and hilarious. This is the fieriest, most deliriously vibrant picture from the director since the millennium turned. Nevertheless, stood in the company of Goodfellas, the Martin Scorsese film from which The Wolf of Wall Street consciously takes many of its cues, it is found wanting.

I was vaguely familiar with the title, not because I knew much about Jordan Belfort but because the script had been in development for such a long time (Ridley Scott was attached at one time). So part of the pleasure of the film is discovering how widely the story diverges from the Wall Street template. “The Wolf of Wall Street” suggests one who towers over the city like a behemoth, rather than a guy …

Barbarians? You call us barbarians?

The Omega Man (1971)
(SPOILERS) Chuck Heston battles albino mutants in 1970s LA. Sure-fire, top-notch B-hokum, right? Can’t miss? Unfortunately, The Omega Man is determinedly pedestrian, despite gestures towards contemporaneity with its blaxploitation nods and media commentary so faint as to be hardly there. Although more tonally subdued and simultaneously overtly “silly” in translating the vampire lore from Richard Matheson’s I am Legend, the earlier The Last Man on Earth is probably the superior adaptation.

Reindeer-goat cheese pizza?

Hudson Hawk (1991)
A movie star vanity project going down in flames is usually met with open delight from press and critics alike. Even fans of the star can nurse secret disappointment that they were failed on this occasion. But, never mind, soon they will return to something safe and certain. Sometimes the vehicle is the result of a major star attaching themselves to a project where they are handed too much creative control, where costs spiral and everyone ends up wet (Waterworld, The Postman, Ishtar). In other cases, they bring to screen a passion project that is met with derision (Battlefield Earth). Hudson Hawk was a character created by Bruce Willis, about whom Willis suddenly had the post-Die Hard clout to make a feature.

I think it’s gratuitous, but whatever.

The MCU Ranked Worst to Best
This is an update of a ranking previously published in 2018. I’d intended to post it months ago but these things get side-tracked. You can find the additions of Captain Marvel, Avengers: Endgame, Spider-Man: Far From Home and a revised assessment of Ant-Man and the Wasp. There are also a few tweaks here and there.