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Saturday, September 7, 2013

Why is SHORT TERM 12 the American Indie of 2013 (thus far)?

John Gallagher Jr., left, and Brie Larson, right in SHORT TERM 12
Courtesy of Cinedigm

Another Look at SHORT TERM 12

by Joshua Handler

I have already reviewed Short Term 12 (you can read the review here) so I won't review it again.  Instead, I will go a bit more in depth as to why this film distinguishes itself among the dozens or even hundreds of indies that have been released this year.  


Still reading?  Good.  I hope you loved the film as much as I did.  So what exactly makes Short Term 12 so moving and so complex?  First and foremost, the script.  Destin Daniel Cretton wrote the screenplay for Short Term 12 and it is notable for its incredible honesty.  A fellow critic noted that each and every character is a person, not a stereotype.  In films about troubled teens, the teens typically have some case of mental illness and are never treated like real people by their directors.  Short Term 12's characters are as real as they get.  Take Jayden, for example.  She's a teen with an abusive father who cuts - classic case.  Instead of simply showing Jayden as a pity case, Cretton develops her.  We don't even know that she's abused until well into the film.  We find out information as Grace finds it out.  We care about Jayden because we connect to her on a human level, as she is like many people that we all know.  When Jayden's dad doesn't come to pick her up, we're crushed because we all know how painful abandonment is and how painful it is for her especially.  Cretton allows the audience to empathize, not pity Jayden, and this is a great strength of the movie.

Even Sammy, one of the minor characters in the film, has a heartbreaking story and is developed.  Sammy's sister has died and he keeps her toys with him along with a photo.  Nothing else is told about Sammy, but already we care.  Again, this is not a pity case, as Sammy is developed enough that he emerges as a person, not a caricature. Cretton occasionally cuts back to Sammy lying in his room, curled up in a ball on his bed, just to remind us that he is still there; he is still a person.

Grace was abused by her father.  She sent him to jail and has had to live with the memories of abuse for years without treatment.  She is emotionally closed-off to her fiancĂ©e, Mason, because of her experiences.  The emotions that should go to him are channeled into the teens that she cares for.  As John Gallagher Jr. noted in the Q&A after the screening I attended, Mason was a foster kid himself and is the person that he is today because he was loved by his foster parents.  Mason and Grace have the same goal and motivation, just opposite situations.  They want to help the teens at the foster care facility because of their pasts.  Mason wants the kids to have the same experience he had and Grace wants them to have a different, better one than she had.  She wants those kids to know that someone loves them.  They both want the kids to know that someone loves them - a powerful goal and one that we, as the audience, can sympathize with.

Small moments add depth to the film, such as the moment when Nate finds Sammy's toy.  Realizing that he is about to make a huge difference in Sammy's life, he takes and brings it to him.  When Sammy sees it, he moves for the first time in a while and takes it slowly in his fingers.  Moments like these show humanity and provide hope for the shattered characters.  This one thing isn't going to make Sammy okay again, but is something that will help him on his road to recovery.  A moment like this is poignant and powerful, especially because there are no words to manipulate the audience.  Most other films would make a big deal out of this event, but Cretton simply lets it speak for itself.

Short Term 12 features some of the finest and most courageous performances of the year, but Brie Larson and John Gallagher Jr. stand out.  Their performances are consistently excellent, but they each have a single scene that brings home their respective performances.  For Larson, that scene is the one in the hospital parking lot.  Grace leaves the hospital after Marcus' suicide attempt.  Everything has built and built and she cannot take it anymore.  As she and Mason get to the parking lot, he tells Grace to tell him what's going on.  "Mason, you have no idea what I'm going through right now," responds Grace.  "Then tell me," begs Mason. "That's how this works: you talk to me about it, so that I can take your hand and f*ckin walk through this sh*t with you.  That is what I signed up for, okay?  But I cannot do that if you won't let me in."  Mason's plea to Grace fails, as she stares at him, looking like a broken young girl, overwhelmed by her life.  As Mason continues to plead, Grace breaks down more and more.  Never has a broken soul looked so simultaneously sympathetic and maddening.  And remarkably, Larson says very little during this scene.  Her expressive face says it all.

For Gallagher, his performance peaks at his foster parents' anniversary party.  Looking around at all of the people whose lives his foster parents changed, he makes a toast to them.  "Everything good in my life is because of you," he says.  In this brief speech, all of the gratitude and love that Mason feels for his foster parents is evident, as is the impact that they had on him.  This is a revelatory moment that shines above all others in Gallagher's warm, caring performance due to his sincerity and the bare emotion he shows.

Short Term 12 is a masterpiece of storytelling, acting, and direction that deserves attention from cinephiles and general audiences alike.  It is a humanistic piece of filmmaking that emphasizes the importance of trust in life.  For my money, this is the best independent film in years.

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