We tend to forget just how lucky we are to have a movie treasure like the Magic Lantern. I tried to make that point while reviewing one of the films that is opening there today, "Short Term 12," which I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:
One thing that differentiates mainstream movies from real life involves emphasis. Hollywood makes things seem bigger. The cars are bigger. The explosions are bigger. The emotions are bigger. Big enough, producers hope, to achieve the hoped-for high grosses.
And those grosses do come – mostly. No writer employs a bigger bag of cheap theatrics than Nicholas Sparks. And yet eight movies based on Sparks novels – from “Message in a Bottle” to “Nights in Rodanthe” – have made some $455 million. In America, it’s clear, we really do like big.
Which is one reason why a movie such as “Short Term 12” isn’t playing at mainstream theaters. Why, instead, it opens this weekend at Spokane’s only independent art-house, the Magic Lantern. In movie terms, “Short Term 12” is a little production. But, and here’s the point I want to stress, “little” is hardly the same thing as bad. Or even average.
I’ll go still further: “Short Term 12” is as good a movie that has played Spokane this year. And I say that for one main reason: Though I, too, am a fan of most things big – especially when they put Vin Diesel in a muscle car – I prefer movies that strive to capture the reality of human experience. And no movie I’ve seen in recent memory feels more real than “Short Term 12.”
Written and directed by Destin Cretton, and expanded from a 2008 short that won Cretton an award at the Sundance Film Festival, “Short Term 12” is set in a halfway house for troubled teens. Some of these kids have no parents. Some have parents they are better off without. All have needs that the overworked, underpowered staff strives to meet.
And the work IS exhausting, the kind that’s more a life mission than mere job. Which is why Grace (Brie Larson) is so good at it. As the facility’s on-site director, she is understanding AND compassionate; if pushed, though, she’ll readily demonstrate her own brand of tough love. Her coworker Mason – who, in their off-hours, doubles as Grace’s live-in partner – has experienced both her sides. And Cretton gives Larson enough room to show us why, despite obstacles, Mason is so madly in love with her.
And that’s largely the reason why I like “Short Term 12” so much. In many ways, Cretton’s screenplay follows a standard storyline: the characters are just diverse enough (the girl who cuts herself, the angry young black man, the needy near-autistic ginger boy), and the issues they face (sexual abuse, parental and institutional indifference) are familiar to anyone who has watched the Hallmark Channel. But Cretton possesses an ability unique to the best filmmakers: He can create interesting characters, give them room to develop AND cast actors who know what to do with that freedom.
Actors such John Gallagher Jr., from HBO’s “The Newsroom,” who makes almost-too-good-to-believe Mason ring so true. Or Larson as Grace, whose own past – which lurches back into her present – is so dark that it causes her to stand, baseball bat at the ready, over the sleeping form of someone she sees as the source of all the world’s evil.
How Cretton resolves that moment, and – ultimately – makes us smile at life’s many conundrums, is key to how his little film offers such a big payoff.