Friday, January 3, 2014

The Top Ten Films of 2013: #5


I begin the second half of this list - the best of the best - with Destin Daniel Cretton's "Short Term 12," an unexpected crowd pleaser about a group home for at-risk kids - a sort of way station between stops in the county bureaucracy.

The administrator is Jack (Frantz Turner), but Grace (Brie Larson) runs the place day-to-day. A woman of 20, wise beyond her years, Grace doles out privileges and punishments and finds sympathy for these young people she doesn't allow for herself. Alongside Grace works her boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher, Jr.), who asks Grace countless times to "let him in," to apply to the demons in her past the same openness and candor she demands of her charges.

The newest member of their team is Nate, who means well but is in over his head, and for whom Cretton has written some very funny scenes. After they chase down Sammy, a sweet pre-teen with a large collection of dolls, when he tries to escape (the rules are, they can't touch the kids once they've stepped foot outside the gates), their colleague Jessica asks, "How're you doing?" "Not so well," Nate replies, still trying to catch his breath. She tells him she meant Sammy, who assures her he's fine.

The best of the film's many terrific qualities is its respect for the audience. Cretton has the courage to leave a lot unsaid and unexplained. He throws us into the middle of the action, and we pick up things - the derivation of the term Short Term 12, the lingo ("level drops") - by observation, obliquely, or not at all. The same applies to the kids' backstories, and to Grace's. What a rare treat not to be spoon-fed.

In one scene, Marcus, who'll soon turn 18 and age out of the system, shares with Mason some rap lyrics he's been working on, which to the careful listener yield clues about how he came to be there. (It may be the most meaningful movie rap since Dixon's to Officer Kurring early in "Magnolia.") At one of the regular community meetings, Sammy asks if they can replace their usual game with one he's invented called "Big and Small." Grace tells him to explain it to her afterward. We never learn how it's played.

The closest thing to a plot involves a new arrival named Jayden, a cutter and biter of whom Jack asks Grace to take particular care. She's played by Kaitlyn Dever with just the right mix of blasé bravado and deeply repressed vulnerability. She takes a very long time to warm to Grace. One day, after they've been drawing together, Jayden shows Grace some illustrations for a children's story she's written called "Nina the Octopus." I won't tell you any more about the story except that it moved me to tears, and that Grace is the only one whose history has put her in position to extrapolate all of its implications.

As Grace, Larson (hysterically funny as Joseph Gordon-Levitt's sister in "Don Jon") is riveting, a revelation. You can't take your eyes off her. Gallagher makes the kind and endlessly forgiving Mason - scruffy as he is - nothing less than lovable. And the ensemble of child actors is the best in any movie of the year. "Short Term 12" got a hearty ovation from my audience. How often can it genuinely be said that a movie makes you laugh, makes you cry, makes you think, and makes you applaud?

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