Thursday, July 17, 2014

Larson Makes a Play for Leading Lady Status in Magnificent "Short Term 12"

Brie Larson shows what she's capable of in Short Term 12.
Short Term 12 is one of those indie darlings you hear about during Oscar season, the type many critics say deserves to be a big awards player if not for the politics and money involved in the process.

Having seen the film, I can understand why. Short Term 12 is vital filmmaking. It is simultaneously heartbreaking and uplifting – a chicken soup for the soul experience, but not in a corny or melodramatic way. It's a nuanced, authentic and involving human drama about neglected, anti-social youths and the staff members who try to offer them stability. Although it flew under the radar, it stands as one of the best films of 2013.

One of the best things about Short Term 12 is that it understands there are no easy solutions for the personal issues these kids face. Bright spots and breakthroughs are possible, but they aren't cure-all turning points. All the staff members are trying to do is keep these kids safe and try to make the good, self-affirming moments outnumber the ones overcome by anger, confusion and destructive tendencies.

The film focuses on Grace (Brie Larson), the staff supervisor at a short term group home that is meant to keep troubled teens for no more than a year but often keeps them far longer than that, making the inevitable separation from the home even harder. Like many of the kids under her care, Grace had a rough childhood, something she has buried in the past but that bubbles to the surface for three reasons – her father’s impending release from jail, the arrival of Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), a teenager facing similar abuse issues to those Grace experienced, and the discovery that she is pregnant with the child of her boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), another staffer at Short Term 12.

John Gallagher Jr. and Larson share an easy chemistry in the film.
The film serves its ensemble well. Dever and Gallagher both do fine work fleshing out characters that in a weaker film with lesser actors would be pure plot devices in Grace’s story. Dever is a raw nerve and Gallagher  makes the too-good-to-be-true nice guy interesting (he’s practically the Jim Halpert of the group home) by digging deep and becoming this goofy, lovable guy.

Keith Stanfield also gives a great performance as Marcus, a long-time resident who is turning 18 and about to be forced out of Short Term 12. In one scene, Stanfield delivers "So You Know What It's Like," an original and powerful rap song with the refrain “Look in my eyes so you know what it’s like to live a life not knowing what a normal life’s like.” It’s one of the more memorable moments in the movie, played beautifully by Stanfield and Gallagher, and it’s a shame Oscar voters didn't notice the song.

That may be a shame, but it’s downright crazy Larson didn't garner their attention. I get that Meryl Streep and Judi Dench are institutions, but the fact that Larson, Greta Gerwig (for Frances Ha) and Julie Delpy (for Before Midnight) were all ignored by the Academy is simply mind-boggling.

Larson's been acting since the late '90s, but the 24-year-old has grown increasingly recognizable in recent years, popping up in a number of critically acclaimed TV shows and films (United States of TaraCommunityGreenbergThe Spectacular NowRampart). She's probably best known for playing Jonah Hill's love interest in 21 Jump Street, but Larson has taken a big leap forward into leading lady territory with Short Term 12. As Grace, she teeters on the edge, coming across as strong and commanding and yet fragile and insecure. It’s a revelatory performance that brings to mind the way Jennifer Lawrence launched herself to stardom with Winter's Bone.

Given the strength of the film, I’m looking forward to whatever writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton does next. The guy has credits on IMDB dating back 12 years, but it appears that he began gathering steam a few years ago following the short film Short Term 12, which later inspired this movie. I’m hoping he takes the next step the same way Neill Blomkamp did after he parlayed the successful short film Alive in Joburg into the full-length District 9. However, there’s always the chance he goes the way of Phil Morrison, another filmmaker who finally got a fantastic humanist film made after a long career as a director (that would be Junebug), only to then return to obscurity. 

Time will tell, but, based on his marvelous work here, Cretton definitely deserves the opportunity to make a second feature. A