A film that eschews formula

Sunday, 12 January 2014 - 10:49am IST | Agency: DNA

Film: Short Term 12
Dir: Destin Cretton
Genre: Drama
Country: USA
Year: 2013

Out of nowhere, a small indie film caused a huge ruckus at SXSW (South By South West) festival in early 2013. The audience was bowled over, and the reviews were overwhelmingly positive. It starred a bunch of unknowns and was directed by a first timer. It was called Short Term 12.

The beauty of independent cinema is that the filmmaking process doesn’t need to bend to the studios’ rules and sacrifice genuine emotion for schmaltz. That way, sometimes things just fall into place and a really meaningful and memorable film arises from the slushy muck of Hollywood.
Short Term 12, which is Destin Cretton’s debut film, is based on his own short film of the same name and is not only the best indie of 2013, but also a gently moving and a very sharply observed gem.

The strange title refers to the location where the film is set — a foster home which takes care of troubled and abused kids. With that information relayed to us in the first five minutes, Short Term 12 cleverly avoids the clichés of establishing its title. Unexpectedly, there are no scenes of explanation for how Short Term 12 works and the film instead focuses on the characters that inhabit it — the kids, their guardians and the senior supervisor Grace played by Brie Larson. Given the setup, one would expect a heavily sentimental film centred around troubled kids, but the film simply eschews formula and delivers laughs in generous doses. It really is three films in one — a quirky dysfunctional comedy, which slowly turns into a heartfelt drama and finally into a moving tearjerker. It is impossible to gauge when the film shifts from one mode to another and that attests a thing or two about Cretton’s impressive filmmaking chops. The plot doesn’t the least bit provide any new ground in drama, but Cretton finds a certain behavioural nuance and just the right amount of emotional complexity in his characters.

Grace’s back story is devastating but the film communicates her character arc to us in a verbal way instead of a tacky visual one. The story pops in and out of the lives of various kids in the foster home and even those segments are beautifully observed. There’s a kid who is about to turn 18 and is wary of stepping out of the institute and going back to his abusive parents, there’s another kid who keeps running away, and another who turns out to be a younger version of Grace. The film fluidly cuts between the camaraderie of the employees, Grace’s personal life and the kids’ stories. Cretton’s direction is so organic and intimate that it makes you feel like one of the workers at the foster home.

In one scene, a kid with an affinity towards rap music waxes lyrics dedicated to his abusive parents, and it unfolds in an astonishing manner. It’s just one of the many sequences where Cretton somehow balances the weights of vulnerable schmaltz and overcompensating seriousness with just the right amount of dignity, rendering the characters likable and relatable. All of the rage, the anxiety and grief surrounding the characters are executed subtly and elegantly, and not with melodrama. It’s this kind of stuff that makes the film less a ‘product’ and more a deeply layered and expressive piece of art.

It helps that the performances are absolutely top-notch and Larson is so powerful, it never feels like she is ‘acting’ for a camera. She ping pongs from resilience to helplessness to denial and she’s quite wonderful in every node. The film is pretty much a star making vehicle for Larson. Jennifer Lawrence has competition and she doesn’t even know it yet.

Mihir Fadnavis is a film critic and certified movie geek who has consumed more movies than meals

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