Chuck Koplinski: Actress riveting as damaged heart of 'Short Term 12'

There's a great deal of compassion at the heart of Destin Daniel Cretton's "Short Term 12," a moving and engrossing drama about damaged teens and the damaged adults who try to care for them.

Taking place in a foster care facility for at-risk kids, the film quietly sucks the viewer in by creating a sense of intimacy with its fly-on-the-wall approach that allows us to see the drama unfold in a natural, unaffected manner that helps betoken the movie's honest approach to its characters and their troubles.

Levelheaded and together on the outside, Grace (Brie Larson) is the supervisor of the group home of the title, and you can tell immediately that she means business. Her demeanor is tough, but there's an air of understanding and fairness about her that the kids under her care pick up on and respect. She has her hands full every day as a crisis is always in the offing — an offhand comment or unintentional act triggering an emotional meltdown in one of these castoff kids that must be contained before they can harm themselves or anyone else. It's a job of small victories and crushing defeats.

As the film plays out, we come to realize that Grace understands these teens as well as she does because she was — and still is — one of them. Sexually abused by her father, who was incarcerated for this crime, the young woman carries scars too numerous to mention.

And while she puts on a brave face at work, she's falling apart on the inside as she has just found out that she's pregnant with her boyfriend and co-worker Mason's (John Gallagher Jr.) child — and that her father will soon be released from prison.

It's to Cretton's credit that his approach to the drama that plays out in the film is not based on histrionics but rather on barely heard cries for help that slowly build to a crescendo of violent action. This is seen time and again as Grace is forced to deal with her own problems but also in the trials of some of the kids in her charge.

Marcus (Keith Stanfield) is an angry young man who is set to be released on his own recognizance once his quickly approaching 18th birthday passes, while the newly arrived Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) is mourning the death of her mother and dealing with an abusive father. Both of these characters have cathartic, revelatory scenes in which they let their guards down and reveal their true selves; Cretton's approach to these moments is an organic one, as each has an improvised feel that shades it with honesty.

Kudos must be given to Stanfield and Dever: These young performers dig deep and break your heart in these scenes, effectively peeling back their characters' false fronts to reveal their shattered souls.

However, Larson is the straw that stirs the drink, grounding the film with a multilayered performance that's never less than captivating. She holds our attention every moment she's on screen as she portrays Grace as being far from whole, even at her most confident, and that she's longing to find a way to deal with the pain that haunts her.

Larson tells us so much with her eyes, conveying the character's fears and pain with a well-aimed glace or steely stare.

The actress is in complete command and gives "Short Term 12" its battered heart and gigantic soul, anchoring Cretton's film with the kind of emotional honesty that's too rarely seen in modern movies.

'Short Term 12' (3-1/2 stars out of 4)

Cast: Brie Larson, John Gallagher Jr., Kaitlyn Dever, Frantz Turner, Keith Standfield, Stephanie Beatriz, Rami Malek, Alex Calloway, Kevin Hernandez and Lydia Du Veaux.

Written and directed by Destin Daniel Cretton; produced by Joshua Astrachan, Asher Goldstein, Ron Najor and Maren Olson.

A Cinedigm release. 96 minutes. Rated R (language and brief sexuality). At the Art Theater.

Also new in theaters

"Escape From Tomorrow" ambitious look at American angst. (3 stars) If I were to determine anything about director Randy Moore from seeing his debut film "Escape from Tomorrow," it is that he's a very ambitious filmmaker.

He's a bit of a trickster as well. Shot on the sly at the happiest place on Earth, Moore and his crew used small digital cameras to make this movie, visiting Disney World repeatedly to get the footage they needed.

Once you've seen the movie, you'll understand why Moore didn't ask for permission from the House of Mouse to make his project on site, as it's less than flattering in the way it portrays the sort of manufactured happiness Disney sells.

But it's far more than that as the film speaks to middle-class angst, impotence as it pertains to the American male and a general dissatisfaction that's bred when the reality of everyday life clashes with the fantasy of the American Dream.

Jim (Roy Abramsohn) is a man hanging by a thread. Having taken his family to Disney World for vacation, he finds out on the last day of the trip that he has been fired from his job. Adding to his stress is his shrewish wife Emily (Elena Schuber), long lines, broken rides, humid weather and sick kids.

It's not a happy time for Jim, and when he starts to hallucinate, it's obvious he has reached a tipping point. As the day progresses, he experiences a walking nightmare, unable to tell what is real and what are his fantasies, playing out before his eyes.

What's interesting is the shift in tone Moore accomplishes halfway through. The film takes far too long to set up its premise and flirts with losing the viewer as a result. However, when Jim encounters a mysterious woman and accompanies her back to her room, you're sure that this is just one of his wild daydreams. Yet, when it's revealed that it is a part of his reality, Moore effectively pulls the rug out from under us as we're never sure what's real or what's in Jim's mind from that moment on. This is a masterstroke, getting us to empathize with the main character, and it keeps us guessing as to the "reality" of the film until the very end.

Of course, this is Moore's whole point, and if anything, the movie speaks to middle-class dissatisfaction as well as impotence in the modern American male. Jim and Emily do their best to provide what they've been told is the American Dream for themselves and their children, but the financial strain it puts on them ensures that they'll only achieve a sense of frustration and dissatisfaction.

As for Jim, he's past his prime, can do nothing right in the eyes of his wife, who he's no longer attracted to, is suddenly unemployed and is dissatisfied sexually. To be sure, his repeated leering at a pair of teenage girls who cross his path and who he ends up stalking is creepy. However, it speaks accurately to his damaged sense of self and insecurities.

If Moore errs, it's that he attempts to do far too much with his limited resources. However, there's no question that he has his finger on the pulse where societal malaise is concerned, and it will be interesting to see what he comes up with for his next, hopefully better-funded feature.

"Machete Kills" more than lives up to its title. (2-1/2 stars) One thing you have to say for Robert Rodriguez's "Machete Kills," it certainly lives up to its title.

Over the course of its 100 bloody, deliriously cartoonish minutes, its title character — a rogue Mexican assassin played with the emotional range of a wooden post by Danny Trejo — and his nefarious foes use meat cleavers, machetes, knives, guns, rifles, missiles and an engine to stab, decapitate, mangle, maim, slay and crush each other. And there's an experimental gizmo that turns people inside out as well.

Of course, all of this is done with Rodriguez's tongue planted firmly in cheek as the director's second tribute to grindhouse drive-in fare is never to be taken seriously. (He casts Charlie Sheen as the president of the United States. Need I say more?)

No, this is all meant to be ridiculous fun — with Sofia Vergara as a prostitute with a bullet-shooting bra, how could it be otherwise — albeit the sort of good time you might have after drinking too much with your buddies and seeing who can hold onto a lit firecracker the longest and laughing when you realize they'll be calling you "Stumpy" from now on.

The plot ... really? Well, for what it's worth an arms dealer named Voz (Mel Gibson, in a piece of inspired casting) is set to launch a weapons-laden satellite into space, and Machete has been dispatched to stop him before he does.

Along the way, he needs to contend with a duplicitous femme fatale (Amber Heard), a group of working girls out to put his head on a pike and an assassin called La Camaleon who sometimes looks like Antonio Banderas, at others like Cuba Gooding Jr., and even like Lady Gaga when the androgyny bug bites him.

That the film did so poorly during its opening weekend — bringing in a little less than $4 million over the three-day period — suggests that most filmgoers had their fill of this sort of post-modern humor with "Machete" or that they simply don't get the joke.

Rodriguez is a skilled filmmaker, and this is simply a lark for him. You either willingly go along for this goofy ride or pick it apart at every turn. But why would you want to do that when you can see our hero spun around from a helicopter blade, machete out, hacking off his enemies' heads at super-speed?

For DVR alerts, film recommen-dations and movie news, follow Chuck Koplinski on Twitter at @ckoplinski. For his blog, head to http://www.news-gazette.com/blogs/cinema-scoping. Koplinski can be reached via email at chuckkoplinski@gmail.com.

 

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