Friday, August 30, 2013

Short Term 12 (2013): A prole movie invaded by a bourgeois plot

Short Term 12 (2013)
dir: Destin Daniel Cretton

Short Term 12 is a movie that suggests the even the troubled kids are alright, mainly because they have the troubled adults to guide them through the system stacked against them.

Destin Daniel Cretton had worked at a home for troubled youth when he was a younger guy.  He counseled them, watched over them, cared for them and about them.  It's kind of what happens.  It's what needs to happen when kids are abandoned by the communities they belong to.

As such, he made a very personal movie about this home for troubled youth.  He made a movie that feels so hard about its topic, and it is almost the cinematic equivalent of the decades long spate of emo/twee indie rock that invaded the indie scene and has overstayed its welcome.  At times, it feels like the Postal Service album, other times it feels like Sunny Day Real Estate, at even others it feels like...well anything that goes in these soft-spoken glowy genres. This isn't necessarily a bad thing.

The movie itself is about a home for troubled youth, and the troubled almost-volunteer counselors that watch over them.  These are kids who are in times of emotional turmoil, locational upset, or just abandoned by their parents on their way to somewhere, perhaps, a little better.  The group, as such, is a motley, multi-racial crew who clash and collide at each other because they weren't put into a group based on any similarities beyond troubled minds.

The group is watched over by two main counselors - Mason and Grace - and one new incomer, a middle-class vaguely ethnic dude Nate (he's Egyptian in real life).  Mason and Grace are dating on the down low, and have stories and connection aplenty, except Grace won't let Mason in, due to past trauma and blah blah you know where this is going.

The group gets a new character, Jayden, who sends Grace, with her hidden trauma, into a protective mother animal fighting to protect Jayden for some reason and it will all be reblah blah we know where this is going.

The main, and dare I say only, problem with the movie is all the blah blah we know where this is going.  The movie is at its strongest when it is just letting itself be.  When it is hanging around the home, or even just hanging around with Mason and Grace at home, the camera just watching these people act their characters is just fascinating, and emotionally honest and refreshing.  It's not judgmental.  It's not saying these people are good or bad.  It just is.

When this hanging around faux-verite indie film gets invaded by the Jayden/Grace plot, the movie derails.  It becomes a predictable by-the-numbers execution of oh, we know where this is going, and there are very few surprises.  Which is so depressing because, even when Short Term 12 derails, it is still fantastically constructed.

The technical aspects of the film is genius. The acting is phenomenal, emotional, and heart-wrenching.  What Brie Larson and Kaitlyn Dever (who hasn't been given enough credit in the reviews) have done with their characters is nothing short of stunning.  The editing is quite talented, the music is good (though rather twee at times).  The camera work and color choices are brilliant.  The characters are strong and thought out.  It is a well executed movie that was on its way to greatness when it got hijacked by the plot.

Which brings us to problems with cinema itself.  I'm going to take a bit of a lift from Peter Greenaway, and say that film is entirely too dedicated to the printed page.  I don't think it's nearly as destructive as he believes, but this is one movie where less dedication to a book-style narrative is purely detrimental. This is a movie which could have, and should have (IMHO), just been an open window into the lives of these characters. And, it seems that it was headed there for a long time.  But, then we get bombarded by the coincidences in life that do exist, but aren't necessarily the important fodder for a movie of realism, such as Short Term 12.  It's almost as if Cretton didn't have enough faith in his own subject material to do away with the plot and just let the movie be.

Should this bit of bourgeois plot make that much of a dent in such an otherwise excellent film?  Depends on your take on it.  I've seen people who need the A-B-C plot to enjoy, but I'd rather have just had a window into these people's lives. And, Short Term 12 was trying to feel like a window, even as the Hallmark Channel-lifted plot was being telegraphed in.

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