SXSW Review: Why SHORT TERM 12 Is A Masterpiece

Brie Larson works at a foster care home for at-risk youth in this subtle and resonant film from Destin Cretton.

THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A SMALL MOVIE.

IT'S TAKEN HULK A LONG TIME TO REALLY UNDERSTAND THAT. WE ARE CONDITIONED TO THINK OF GREAT CINEMA AS BEING THIS BIG, BOLD AFFAIR, FULL OF OBVIOUS OPERATIC QUALITIES. WE TEND TO CELEBRATE CINEMA THAT MAKES THE FORM SEEM DOWNRIGHT VIVID, OFTEN THROUGH OVERT STYLIZATION. AND BECAUSE OF THIS THINKING, WHEN WE THROW AROUND THE WORD "MASTERPIECE," WE EXPECT FLAWLESS EXECUTION IN EVERY SINGLE COMPONENT OF FILMMAKING. AND NOT JUST THAT, WE NEED THESE GREAT BIG TANGIBLE DETAILS TO LEAP OFF THE SCREEN AS INCONTROVERTIBLE EVIDENCE. BUT THE PROBLEM WITH THIS KIND OF EVALUATION IS IT INHERENTLY LEADS TO THE THINKING OF FILMS AS BEING SOME KIND OF CHECKLIST. THE KIND OF EVALUATION WHERE YOU PROCLAIM: "THAT FILM ISN'T A MASTERPIECE BECAUSE IT DOESN'T HAVE TRANSCENDENT CINEMATOGRAPHY!" OR BECAUSE IT DOESN'T DO SOME OTHER TECHNICALLY VIVID THING. BUT WORSE THAN THAT IS THE NEED FOR OBVIOUS TANGIBLE DETAILS BREEDS A CINEMA CULTURE WHERE WE HORRIBLY UNDERVALUE OR JUST PLAIN MISS THE SUBTLETIES. WE MISS THE THINGS THAT WE MAY NOT REALIZE ARE JUST AS DIFFICULT TO EXECUTE BECAUSE THEY ARE NOT SHOWY. WE MISS THE MERITS OF DRAMATIC RESERVATION. AND THUS, AS CINEMA ENTHUSIASTS, WE WORSHIP AT THE TABLES OF THE OBVIOUS GREATS LIKE MARTIN SCORSESE OR PAUL THOMAS ANDERSON, BUT TOO FREQUENTLY MISS THE GENIUS OF THE MIKE LEIGH OR TSAI MING-LIANG.

AS SUCH, IT HAS TAKEN HULK FAR TOO LONG TIME TO REALIZE THAT EVERY FILM CAN ACHIEVE GREATNESS, NO MATTER HOW BIG OR SMALL, OPERATIC OR SUBTLE, GRANDIOSE OR RESERVED. HECK, SOMETIMES IT'S 1000X BETTER TO REFRAIN FROM THE GRAND OPERATIC QUALITY OF CINEMA AND GO FOR THE MOST INTIMATE AND STRAIGHTFORWARD OF EXPRESSIONS WHICH, AS IT TURNS OUT, MAY BE 1000X MORE DIFFICULT TO FULLY REALIZE. AND IF THE PURPOSE OF ART IS TO GET AT SOME KIND OF RESONANT AND COMPELLING TRUTH, THEN THE ONLY TRUE REQUIREMENT OF CINEMA THEREAFTER SHOULD BE TO MAKE THAT SUBJECT COME ALIVE.

SHORT TERM 12 IS ABOUT A GROUP CARE HOME OF THE SAME NAME AND THE PEOPLE WHO POPULATE ITS RANKS: FROM THE FOUR OLDER TWENTY-SOMETHINGS WHO HELP RUN THE FACILITY TO THE GROUP OF YOUNG DAMAGED KIDS WHO MAKE UP ITS INHABITANTS. EVEN THOUGH IT IS AN ENSEMBLE, THE FILM IS ANCHORED BY BRIE LARSON, WHO EMBODIES THE STRUGGLE OF EVERYDAY COURAGE BY TACKLING EVERY SINGLE DIFFICULTY OF THE YOUNG KIDS, WHILE CONSTANTLY HAVING TO KEEP HER OWN ACHINGLY SIMILAR DEMONS AT BAY. IN DOING SO SHE IS NOTHING SHORT OF REMARKABLE, ESPECIALLY WHEN SET AGAINST THE GRAIN OF EVERY ROLE SHE'S DONE SO FAR. IT'S THE KIND OF PERFORMANCE THAT REMINDS YOU HOW MUCH OF A CHAMELEON SHE CAN REALLY BE. EQUALLY AS IMPRESSIVE TO HULK IS JOHN GALLAGHER JR., WHO USES HIS SELF-EFFACING DISPOSITION AS HIS GREATEST WEAPON TO TRY AND HOLD EVERYONE ELSE AROUND HIM. WHILE IT MAY SEEM TO SOME AS AN UNBLINKING INHERENT GOODNESS, THE FILM TAKES TIME TO MAKE IT CLEAR THAT HIS IS A BROW-BEATEN HUMILITY, BORN FROM MATURATION AND GRIM EXPERIENCE. AND THEN THERE IS RAMI MALEK, THE NEWBIE AT THE FACILITY WHO ACTS IN PART AS OUR AUDIENCE SURROGATE, OFTEN UNREADY FOR THE DIFFICULTIES OF THE JOB. WHAT IS PERHAPS MOST IMPRESSIVE IS THE FILM UNDERSTANDS THE PERFECT AMOUNT OF TIME TO USE HIM. IT IS NOT HIS STORY. HE IS A TOUCHSTONE AND RAMI TURNS HIM INTO A WIDE-EYED, SPECTACULAR ONE AT THAT.

BUT WHAT DEFINES EACH OF THESE CHARACTERS IS THEIR HUMANE PRACTICALITY. IT GETS AT SOMETHING SO TRUE ABOUT THE NOT-SO-YOUNG PEOPLE WHO CARE FOR YOUNG PEOPLE AND HOW THEY HAVE A REMARKABLE ABILITY TO APPROACH EVERYTHING THEY DO WITH GOOD HUMOR OR APPROPRIATE SERIOUSNESS. THEY KNOW WHEN TO BEND RULES AND HOW TO BE A FRIEND INSTEAD OF AN ADMINISTRATOR (WITHOUT CROSSING THAT LINE). THEY KNOW (OR HAVE AT LEAST LEARNED) THAT IT'S NOT ABOUT TRYING TO SAVE THE WORLD, BUT SIMPLY COMMITTING TO THE KINDS OF THANKLESS, DAY-IN-DAY-OUT, MUNDANE HEROISMS THAT CAN GENUINELY MAKE SOMEONE'S LIFE JUST A LITTLE BIT BETTER.

EVEN THEN, THE TRUE STARS OF SHORT TERM 12 ARE THE KIDS WHO MAKE UP WHAT IS PERHAPS THE MOST ADEPT ENSEMBLE OF CHILD ACTORS HULK HAS EVER SEEN. ALL ARE INCREDIBLY NATURALISTIC, BUT HULK WOULD BE REMISS NOT TO MENTION THE WORK OF KAITLYN DEVER AS JAYDEN AND KEITH STANFIELD AS MARCUS. DEVER NAILS EVERY SINGLE INCANTATION OF THE REBELLIOUS, SARCASTIC CHILD WHO HAS BUILT UP ENOUGH WALLS AROUND HERSELF TO PROTECT HER FROM THAT WHICH HAUNTS HER. AND WITH STANFIELD'S PERFORMANCE, HE AND THE FILMMAKERS HAVE SHAPED SOMETHING SO SPECIFIC AND IMPORTANT. SO OFTEN IN THE POPULAR DEPICTION OF YOUNG BLACK MALES WE SEE THE LIKES OF TRAUMA LEADING TO WHAT HULK WILL SIMPLY CALL THE "HARDENED GANGSTER PSYCHOLOGY." AT THIS POINT MEDIA TREATS IT LIKE AN OBLIGATORY FACT. BUT IN REALITY, SO MANY YOUNG BLACK MALES JUST STAY DAMAGED AND INTROVERTED AND SCARED. THEY LASH OUT, BUT MOSTLY DIRECT THEIR ANGER AT THEMSELVES. FOR THAT, THEY CONTAIN A HUMAN CAPACITY THAT ENCAPSULATES A FULL RANGE OF HUMAN REACTIONS. AND MARCUS, ON THE CUSP OF BEING RELEASED INTO THE REAL WORLD, EXHIBITS EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM.

WHAT MAKES THE WORK OF ALL THESE CHARACTERS EXCEPTIONAL IS THAT NONE OF THEM GO ABOUT IT IN A SHOWY OR "BIG" WAY. SO MUCH OF WHAT COULD BE BOMBASTIC GETS DIRECTED INWARD, BARELY ESCAPING OUT OF THE SIDES OF SOMEONE'S MOUTH, OR CAN BE SEEN WRESTLING ABOUT WITHIN SOMEONE'S EYES. IT IS UTTERLY APPROPRIATE FOR THIS KIND OF STORY, WHICH IS DEALING WITH A CERTAIN KIND OF TRAUMA. IT IS ABOUT THE DIFFICULTY OF BEING ABLE TO "SAY" ANYTHING AND THE WAYS WE CONVEY WHAT IS REALLY HURTING US. AND IT IS NOT THE PERFORMANCES THAT GO RIGHT FOR YOUR THROAT AND BELLOW THE MEANING TO THE HEAVENS, BUT SLOWLY SEEP IN THROUGH YOUR SKIN AND RIGHT INTO YOUR BONES.

WHICH REALLY SAYS EVERYTHING ABOUT THIS FILM. IT WAS WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY DESTIN CRETTON AND IT WAS DONE SO BRILLIANTLY. WHILE LOOKING FOR THE OPERATIC, FORMAL CINEMA YOU MAY MISS THINGS LIKE THE FLAWLESS EXECUTION OF A SUBTLE ZOOM. THE PERFECT FRAMING OF A FOUR-WAY CONVERSATION. THE WAY IT SUBTLY SHIFTS FROM TASTEFUL SHAKY-CAM TO STILL FRAMES IN SUCH A WAY THAT YOU NEVER NOTICE THE SHIFT. OR PERHAPS YOU MAY NEVER NOTICE THE STUNNING WAY IT HITS EVERY SINGLE SOFTENED BEAT IN THIS PITCH-PERFECT EDIT. THIS IS OBJECTIVELY GREAT FILMMAKING, FOLKS; PERHAPS BEST DEMONSTRATED IN A MOMENT WHERE MARCUS RAPS TO A COUNSELOR, REMINDING YOU OF ALL THE TERRIBLE ON-THE-NOSE RAP SCENES YOU'VE SEEN BEFORE, BUT INSTEAD BECOMES ONE OF THE MOST STARTLING EMOTIONAL MOMENTS THAT ELICITS EQUAL PARTS TEARS AND GASPS.

BUT ALL OF THIS WOULD BE FOR NAUGHT IF SHORT TERM 12 DIDN'T GET AT SUCH DOWNRIGHT RESONANT TRUTH. THIS IS A FILM ABOUT SCARS, LITERAL AND FIGURATIVE, AND HOW PEOPLE TRY TO FUNCTION WHEN THEY "DON'T KNOW WHAT A NORMAL LIFE'S LIKE." IT IS GROUNDED IN THE CYCLES OF ABUSE AND THE DIFFICULTIES HUMANS HAVE IN TAKING OFF THEIR ARMOR TO CONFRONT THEM. IT IS ABOUT THE REASONS WE FIGHT THOSE CYCLES IN THE FACE OF THEIR NEVER-ENDING CERTAINTY. AND WHILE IT CERTAINLY ISN'T REQUIRED TO MAKE A FILM LIKE THIS, THE FACT THAT DESTIN CRETTON WORKED IN A GROUP HOME JUST LIKE THIS IS DOWNRIGHT FUCKING OBVIOUS. HE TAPS INTO SOMETHING SO PERSONAL, SO WELL-OBSERVED, AND SO ACCURATE THAT IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO IMAGINE THIS KIND OF THING BEING MERE VOYEURISM. AND HE SO NAILS THE PSYCHOLOGY OF THE KIDS, THE SUBTLETIES OF THE POLITICS AND THE FEW INSTITUTIONAL DYNAMICS THAT IT COULDN'T HELP BUT REMIND HULK OF THE WIRE OF ALL THINGS. WHICH IS NOT TO CALL THIS SOME PLOT-HEAVY SOCIOLOGICAL TREATISE, BUT JUST TO SAY THAT THE FILM SIMPLY REFLECTS THAT SAME LEVEL OF CHARACTER COMPLEXITY AND UPHOLDS THE SANCTITY OF ACCURACY.

STILL, THE TRUTH IS THAT WHEN YOU GET PAST A CERTAIN POINT OF OBJECTIVITY AND ADORATION, MOVIES CAN'T HELP BUT BECOME PERSONAL AGAIN. HULK READILY ADMITS THAT THIS MOVIE IS ALMOST SHOCKINGLY PERSONAL IN THAT HULK ONCE WORKED IN REMARKABLY SIMILAR SITUATION OF GROUP CARE. AND CRETTON'S UTTER ABILITY TO "GET IT" IS THE KIND OF THING THAT MAKES HULK WANT TO LEAP TO THE RAFTERS AND SING THE FILM'S PRAISES, FOR IT CAN BE STAMPED WITH EVERY CONCEIVABLE STAMP OF AUTHENTICITY.

HULK ARGUES THIS MATTERS. AFTER THE SCREENING A FELLOW PATRON SOUGHT TO QUESTION THE FILM'S REALISM, CITING "None of the kids really seemed that dangerous!" FAILING TO REALIZE THE BASIC FACT THAT THE REALLY VIOLENT KIDS WHO HURT OTHERS ARE KICKED OUT OF GROUP HOMES LIKE THIS AND GO TO JUVEY. MEANING THESE HOMES ARE POPULATED BY THE KINDS OF DAMAGED KIDS SHOWN IN THIS MOVIE WHO ARE WELL-MEANING, BUT TEMPERAMENTAL AND MOST LIKELY TO HURT THEMSELVES. MEANING THE "REALITY" THE PERSON COMMENTING ON WAS BEING DRAWN FROM THEIR SENSE OF THE WORLD THROUGH THE FALSENESS OF A MEDIA CULTURE THAT THINKS OF TROUBLED KIDS AS SOMETHING RATHER UNREALISTIC, PARTICULARLY WITH REGARDS TO ITS VIEW OF YOUNG BLACK MALES. IT IS REALLY NO DIFFERENT THAN THE LEGIONS OF FANS WHO WATCH CSI AND ASSUME THAT'S HOW POLICE WORK IS ACTUALLY DONE.

IN THAT RESPECT, THE VALUE OF THIS KIND OF FILM HAS NEVER BEEN MADE MORE CLEAR. IT IS THE KIND OF FILM THAT BRISTLES AT UNREALITY. IT IS THE KIND OF FILM WHERE WE CAN ABSORB TRUTH THROUGH STORY, FAR FROM THE SHORES OF DIDACTICISM. IT SHOWS US THAT THE FAILURE TO RECOGNIZE THE SUBTLETY AND NUANCE OF ANY SUBJECT IS PRECISELY WHAT LEADS US AWAY FROM TRUTH. IT FEARS THAT WE LIKE OUR HEROIC FIGURES TO BE "SUPER" INSTEAD OF REAL AND ENGAGED IN THE MUNDANE JOBS THAT MAKE US BETTER. WHICH IS CRITICAL BECAUSE REGARDLESS OF OUR OWN PERSONAL LEANINGS, WE CAN'T HELP BUT TAKE THE BROAD STEREOTYPES AS STATUS QUO AND THEREBY "TRUTH." PUT SIMPLY: MAYBE WE AREN'T EVALUATING MOVIES RIGHT. MAYBE OUR FOCUSING ON THE TANGIBLE DETAILS IS CAUSING US TO MISS WHAT REALLY MATTERS IN STORYTELLING. FOR THERE IS NO QUALIFICATION IN HULK'S ESTIMATION IN WHICH THIS FILM IS NOT A MASTERPIECE. IT IS AN UTTER TESTAMENT TO THE POWER OF THE "SMALL" MOVIE.

AND THAT'S BECAUSE SHORT TERM 12 IS NOT A SMALL MOVIE IN THE SLIGHTEST. IT'S AS BIG IN SCALE AS OUR VERY COMPASSION, AS OPERATIC AS OUR OWN PERSONAL DEMONS, AND THROUGH STRAIGHTFORWARD STORYTELLING IT CAN FOLD OUR EMOTIONS INWARD IN AN INFINITE WAY, REVEALING LAYER UPON LAYER UPON LAYER OF OUR PSYCHES. AND IN THAT SPIRIT, IT FULFILLS THE VERY PURPOSE OF CINEMA. IT IS NOT A MOVIE THAT MAKES ITS SIZE FELT WITHIN THE TANGIBLE GLORY OF THE FRAME, BUT IN THE DEPTH OF ITS CHARACTERS AND IMPORT OF ITS MEANING. WHICH PROVES THAT THE FILM HAS OPTED FOR A CANVAS SO MUCH MORE GRAND...

IT'S A FILM THAT IS AS EXPANSIVE AS THE HUMAN HEART.

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