During every film festival there are always movies that generate a lot of buzz. Sometimes you’re attending said film festival and can see for yourself what all of the fuss is about. Unfortunately, sometimes you’re stuck in the office that week and all you can do is refresh your Twitter feed and read the 140 character reviews that are gushing about said film. I experienced the latter earlier this year during the Sundance Film Festival. I had the displeasure of vicariously living through other people’s tweets about movies like Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Don Jon and the indie flick The Spectacular Now which stars Shailene Woodley (The Descendants). I immediately added both films on my “Watchlist” over on Letterboxd and anticipated their eventual release.
The SXSW Film Festival comes around two months later and both of these films are being screened. I didn’t get a chance to see the Jersey Shore-inspired Don Jon, but I did get a chance to see The Spectacular Now. Can someone remind me why this film was buzzing about the internet? This is where “buzz” goes wrong. Too much buzz generates high expectations and many people are left disappointed. I was certainly disappointed by the alcoholic-teen-graduating-from-high-school-who-meets-a-girl-who-changes-everything-for-him storyline. But that doesn’t mean movies can’t live up to expectation.
Sometimes “buzz” operates harmoniously with its hype and consequent reception. This is the case for Destin Daniel Cretton‘s film Short Term 12 at this year’s SXSW. Everyone seemed to be talking about this film. It would go on to win the Grand Jury prize for Narrative Feature and the Audience Award as well. It seems everyone was on the same page about this wholehearted independent film.
Brie Larson (United States of Tara, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) is Grace, a twenty-something supervisor at a foster-care facility for at-risk teenagers. She is passionate about her work and the teenagers that inhabit her facility. Her long-term boyfriend and co-worker Mason played by John Gallagher Jr. (The Newsroom )is as committed to helping these children as she is. Along with two other coworkers, Grace and Mason attempt to care for these troubled teens without overstepping their bounds. As the film unfolds you see just how difficult it is to keep things professional by following Social Services’ protocols when compassion dictates a better solution to a problem.
Ms. Larson is unreal as Grace. She embodies the complexity of Grace in such a natural and earnest way. It seems effortless on her part. Grace is just as wounded as the teenagers she’s helping. It wasn’t that long ago that she too was dealing with home abuse and neglect. She understands their troubles. She’s struggling with the adult version of their problems. When a new intake named Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) joins the family at Short Term 12 she is reminded of herself. She shares the same personal demons and emotional struggles as this young girl, and by helping her (sometimes overstepping her legal bounds), she also helps herself.
Short Term 12 is expertly cast. Every single teenager in the facility (who are all actors) feels authentic. Cretton’s direction and camerawork has a documentary feel which gives the film a naturalistic tone. Cinematographer Brett Pawlak understands Cretton’s vision. Shots are sometimes very intimate and when it begins to feel somewhat claustrophobic he pulls back and gives the characters some distance. Both Cretton and Pawlak both worked on the short film Short Term 12 was based on and you can see there is a deep understanding between both of them.
Cretton’s portrayal of troubled teens in foster-care doesn’t shy away from the darker moments, nor does he forget the lighthearted humor that exists too. He has developed a believable cast of characters, all with their own struggles and anxieties. The script manages to incorporate ordinary speech along with humor and poeticisms. In the wrong hands, a dramatic feature like this one, characters can easily become caricatures. But Cretton avoids this completely. Every moment feels real. Thanks to the incredible cast, the film avoids all clichés.
During a Q&A after the screening of Short Term 12, Cretton explained that he shares credit for the film with everyone who worked on it. When watching the film, he sees the fingerprints of everyone involved. Based on his own experiences while working at a foster-care facility just after college, he offers us a look into the struggles of the teenagers found in these group homes and the people who are hired to help them. In a very intimate way, Short Term 12 reveals the injustices found in the social services system and how compassion can override them. Short Term 12 proves that not all “buzz” creates backlash. Sometimes, independent film is truly that good and deserves all those glowing 140 character praises you read on Twitter.