I’ve talked from time to time about my general discontentment with the Sundance Film Festival and its breed of repetitive regional cinema, but however annoyed I can get at that festival its nothing compared to my absolute disdain for the South by Southwest Film Festival. While Sundance certainly has its share of movies about white people with First World problems, they do at least try to bring in regional films about people who actually live somewhat dramatic lives, and often these are the films that end up leaving Park City with the most buzz (for more on this phenomenon refer to my review of Fruitvale Station). SXSW, on the other hand, is a festival that has doubled down on movies about boring hipsters who don’t deserve to have movies made about them. This trend reached its nadir when SXSW unleashed the “mumblecore” scene upon the world which combined the “whiney young people bitch about their relationship problems” formula with an amateurish aesthetic that only proves that the people making the film you’re watching are not only boring but also unambitious and lazy. And unlike Sundance, SXSW has almost no real track record of ushering in crossover success stories in spite of its ever-growing coverage by critics and in trade publications. There have been almost no breakout SXSW films, hell, most of the stuff that premieres there is lucky to get theatrical distribution instead of a VOD release. Still, every dog has its day, and odds are good that any festival that premieres as many films as SXSW does is bound to stumble upon something worth talking about every once in a while, and this year that film seems to be a small but ambitious film called Short Term 12.
The film begins with a man named Nate (Rami Malek) arriving at the Short Term 12 group home for his first day of work. He’s inexperienced, a bit naïve, and certainly an audience surrogate. The shitty version of this movie would have been all about Nate as he comes to realize that it’s not the kids who are being changed by this experience but himself… plus some sub-plot about his troubles with some insensitive girlfriend who “just doesn’t understand” what he’s going through. However, this is not that shitty version of the movie that we’re watching and this Nate guy actually turns out to be something of a periphery character. The real protagonist of this story is his boss, a woman named Grace (Brie Larson) who is an experienced worker at this facility in spite of her relatively young age. Her live-in boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) also works at Short Term 12, and the two of them have both developed a strong rapport with the troubled teenagers they work with. Neither Grace nor Mason are naïve people of privilege, they’ve both had troubled upbringings that are not dissimilar to the troubles of the young people they work with, and this troubled past resurfaces in the mind of Grace when a young girl named Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) arrives at Short Term 12 who’s experiences and demeanor seem particularly similar to Grace’s own.
The first thing that jumps out at you about Short Term 12 is its feel of authenticity. You can tell that writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton has had some experience working at a facility like this because the film has a very firm grasp on type of kids who show up at places like that and what can and does occur regularly to them while they’re there. It helps that this is an environment which, for whatever reason, hasn’t really become a cinematic cliché. We’ve seen movies set in mental hospitals and orphanages, but to my knowledge we’ve never really seen a movie about modern group homes. The kids in the home are well varied and don’t feel like stereotypes and the two main counselors in particular seem like well-rounded and three dimensional characters. It’s also aided by a number of strong performances, both from the unknown young people playing the troubled teens and from the up-and-coming young stars playing the counselors. The highlights are definitely Brie Larson as the outwardly tough but privately vulnerable main character and Kaitlyn Dever as the rebellious young girl who sets a lot of the former character’s arc into motion.
There’s really not a whole lot to say about Short Term 12. It feels very real, it builds really believable characters, and it manages to avoid a whole host of mistakes that it easily could have made. It does not, however, leave me convinced that Destin Daniel Cretton is the future of cinema. He was obviously the right person to make this film, but I’m not sure that it really establishes a unique and promising directorial style. That’s the thing about SXSW movies and the modern indie scene in general, it doesn’t really exist to establish a new breed of auteurs so much as its meant to usher along individual projects that highlight certain aspect of the modern human condition, and Short Term 12 is one of the most successful examples of this machine at work.
***1/2 out of Four