1. Short Term 12
Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Stars: Brie Larson, John Gallagher Jr., Kaitlyn Dever, Rami Malek, Keith Stanfield, Kevin Hernandez, Melora Walters
Short Term 12 has many scenes that resonate to the core, but there's one in particular where writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton lets his creative mastery shine.
In the eponymous foster care facility, 17-year-old Marcus (Keith Stanfield) is only a few weeks away from his 18th birthday and subsequent release back into normal society. Up until this point, he's been quiet and resistant to close interactions with anyone else inside Short Term 12. His unknown backstory comes to light, though, during a raw, profane, and powerful rap he's just written about the neglectful relationship he had with his drug-involved mother. As counselor Mason (The Newsroom's John Gallagher, Jr.) beats a drum alongside of Marcus and listens on with compassionate ears, the teen spills his heart out the only way he knows how to: through the written, rhythmic word.
It's those kinds of earnest shots of rich characterization that define Short Term 12, an all-access look into the lives of both the underprivileged kids who've done nothing to deserve their situations and the sympathetic adults who help them despite having their own issues to worry about. Calling the shots inside Short Term 12 is Grace (Brie Larson), Mason's on-the-low girlfriend who's brilliant when it comes to connecting with disenchanted youngsters. She's also harboring some dark inner demons, and when a new girl (Kaitlyn Dever) checks in and slowly reveals that she's the victim of parental abuse, Grace's ability to relate to such trauma points the imaginary "Help Me" sign towards her.
The most impressive aspect of Cretton's exceptional story is how he never teeters into melodrama. The film's heavier scenes are perfectly pitched, hitting high-points of emotional eruption without going too far. His technique for keeping Short Term 12 grounded? Finding the right times to add naturalistic levity. Taking its poignant subject matter into account, Cretton's knack for deriving big laughs from likable characters simply being themselves is apparent throughout the film—there's not a single false moment or forced joke.
Which, of course, wouldn't be possible if not for his altogether spot-on cast. Given the most to work with, Larson is Short Term 12's breakout. Having already shown big range in diverse projects like Rampart and 21 Jump Street, she's able to blend her comedic timing, dramatic chops, and previously unseen explosiveness into a multi-layered character who's ultimately the film's center. Short Term 12 won the Grand Jury Award for SXSW's narrative competition earlier this week, guaranteeing that it'll continue to win festival audiences over (yesterday's screening ended with nearly a full minute's worth of applause)—meaning, Larson's agent should anticipate an influx of phone calls and emails in the coming months.
Films of Short Term 12's ilk are what festivals like SXSW are all about: little productions with large amounts of quality in search for people to discover them. There are, naturally, exceptions in every fest, but when something like Cretton's film comes along, it's a reminder of why long screening lines and late nights working on laptops are all worth it.