Brie Larson

“Short Term 12” begins with pure volatility, which is present in every situation the plot creates. In the opening scene, a group of young people stand around, telling funny stories. The building behind them seems like an unimposing office complex. The aura of peace suddenly shatters as a shirtless young boy sprints out a door, an alarm blaring behind him. The group of adults scrambles to catch up with the cursing, flailing child. After they pull him down as gently as they can, the kid is slowly comforted and the forgotten story is quietly finished. The scene leaves a lasting, tense feeling; like a major disaster was just avoided. The protagonist, Grace, acts as though this isn’t unusual. A feeling that someone is about to snap is present throughout the film, adding true suspense to a heartbreaking film. 

Grace (Brie Larson) is a facilitator at Short Term 12, a halfway house for children and teenagers who are deemed mentally unstable. Along with her boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) and her other coworkers, she works to better the lives of the wards and give them a chance to merge into society upon becoming adults. As Grace helps newcomer Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) assimilate into the group and prepares 18 year old Marcus (Keith Stanfield) to enter adulthood, Grace juggles the trials of the group along with her own demons. 

Director Destin Daniel Cretton’s “Short Term 12” focuses specifically on youth. Everyone has a snapping point and the film shows the cause and the trigger of the emotional outbursts. Watching the struggles and the tantrums of these troubled kids, the audience sees exactly what trained professionals see: indicators of a cry for help. But the adults are just as unstable and explosive and the dialogue and acting keeps the audience invested in their recovery.

The film shines because of how it treats its characters. All the children and the adults are so likably written that it’s impossible not to feel heartbroken over their flaws and failures. The script highlights bad things about the kids staying at Short Term 12, but also highlights how they’re trying to regain control over their damaged lives. They aren’t described as losing the fight, though. They have each other to lean on. The movie is fueled by their emotion as they attempt to make sense of their broken world. 

Larson is astounding as a loving caregiver haunted by her past, skillfully emitting the frustration and sadness that is present in all of us. Gallagher Jr. plays the role of a man hiding pain with jokes well. He is able to channel bitter humor and sarcasm while also showing his confusion in understanding his relationship with Grace. Dever and Stanfield are great in their own arcs, portraying a new generation of the disadvantaged with a feeling of hopelessness. The weakest link is Rami Malek as the newbie supervisor. His acting is fine, but his character is one-note and hardly developed. 

"Short Term 12" succeeds because it understands humans. A person never suffers abuse or loss as a child only to bounce back to normal, and the film knows how difficult it is to help others crawl out of their own personal darkness. At the end, most of the kids are still in "Short Term 12", waiting to see exactly how kind the future is to them, still fighting for a chance that at first wasn’t available. The movie succeeds in showing how it’s very possible to recover and to reach back up after a startling fall. 

At this year’s South By Southwest film festival, “Short Term 12” premiered to massive acclaim, going on to win the festival’s Audience and Grand Jury awards. The film is a quietly stunning and emotional powerhouse with a remarkably warm and compassionate performance from Brie Larson. Larson plays Grace, a supervisor at a facility for at-risk children, and the film’s careful handling of Grace’s relationship with several of the kids makes it a deeply felt, wonderfully acted experience.

The Daily Texan spoke to Brie Larson about the film last week.

Daily Texan: How did you get involved with “Short Term 12,” and what drew you to this role?

Brie Larson: I got involved by the script being sent to me, and Destin [Cretton] and I had a follow-up Skype call where we just discussed Grace and the script and filmmaking and the reasons behind making a movie, and we just really clicked.

 

DT: Once you decided you were going to do the film, what sort of preparation went into the role?

BL: I shadowed at a facility and spent a lot of time on the Internet there’s a lot of research that can be done there, a lot of interviews online of people that have the same job as Grace. I spent time talking with Destin, who had worked at a facility like that for two years.

 

DT: What did you pick up from observing those workers that you incorporated into your performance?

BL: Yeah, all of it! I wouldn’t have known how to do the job if I hadn’t watched them and learned how to do everything. From how to talk with a firm voice and to use restraint … Everything is done to make sure these kids stay on task and feel safe.

DT: The director had you and John Gallagher Jr. work through a list of questions when you first met. Could you talk a bit about that acting exercise?

BL: We didn’t have much time to prepare before the film started, so John and I went to dinner to get to know each other, and as John was leaving, there was an envelope on his doorstep from Destin that said: “Do not open until you get to the restaurant.” When we arrived, we opened it and inside were little pieces of paper that were conversation starters. They were questions ranging from: “What are your hopes and dreams for being a parent?” to specific questions about Grace and Mason [Gallagher’s character] and childhood memories. By the end of that dinner, we had created a whole mythology for Grace and Mason.

 

DT: You worked with some remarkable young actors in the film, especially Keith Stanfield and Kaitlyn Dever. How was working with those kids?

BL: I was just completely in awe by the depth and ability that everybody had. For a movie that has some very deep moments in it, it was just such a light and fun set. We never really did more than a couple of takes of anything, and we kind of created a little family. Destin encouraged John and I to really take on the role of the leader of these kids on- and off-camera. We’d play games and hang out with them and make sure we had a very comfortable relationship, so we could create an environment where it was really okay to make a mistake because there were no such things. The idea of being able to fart in front of one another was a very important aspect of the set.

 

DT: There’s a real tonal delicacy to the movie. It really breaks your heart but finds a way to make you smile through the tears. When you’re filming those heavy scenes, how do you approach something like that?

BL: The director just left me alone. I just listened to a lot of Norwegian black metal and went through my process. I like to know how much time I have, so they’d give me a five-minute warning, and I’d jump in.

 

DT: What was the most challenging scene for you to film?

BL: There were moments where I personally left the character. There was one time where I wasn’t really Grace, I was myself, because I cried when Grace wouldn’t have cried. When Marcus shaves his head, I was so moved by Keith Stanfield’s performance that I had to excuse myself from the scene and cry.

 

DT: You’ve been having a great year working with Destin here, James Ponsoldt on “The Spectacular Now” and Joseph Gordon-Levitt on “Don Jon.” Can you talk about working with all of those directors and their approaches to filmmaking?

BL: That is the joy of the process, knowing that you’re never gonna get into a character or find a way to get out of it the same way twice. For the most part, I enjoy following the lead of the director and going down the rabbit hole with them, whatever that means. You’ve got guys like Oren Moverman, where everything in a scene is lit to allow for an improvised nature, versus your Edgar Wrights, who have a very specific and focused idea as to where even your eyes should be when you’re talking and where you should be looking. Both are welcomed and important for whatever story they’re trying to tell. It’s different ways of getting to the essence of a project.

The Texan will have a review of “Short Term 12” when it opens in Austin on Friday, September 20.

Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller give a breath-taking performance as young adults finding love and growing up in "The Spectacular Now." 

Photo courtesy of A24 Films

Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley easily rank among the most promising young actors working today. Woodley earned an Oscar nomination for her work in “The Descendants,” while Teller has used his dozen or so film roles to etch out a charming, surprisingly complex screen persona. Both actors do their best work yet in “The Spectacular Now,” the touching, singular teen romance from director James Ponsoldt.

Sutter Keely (Teller) is a charismatic hurricane, regularly participating in after-school-special-worthy binge drinking in the midst of an intense downward spiral after breaking up with his girlfriend Cassidy, who is played by Brie Larson. After a particularly rambunctious night of shenanigans, he wakes up on an unfamiliar lawn with Aimee Finecky (Woodley) standing over him, and something compels him to take an interest in her.

Keely has this undeniable boozy likability to him. Teller’s performance is fascinating, playing Keely as a self-destructive teen who is unsure of how to react to someone who sees value in him. Woodley portrays Finecky as a timid girl breaking out of her shell for the first time, perfectly embodying the lovestruck high schooler, from the googly eyes and awkward giggles to the unguarded vulnerability and warmth. The fragile, tender intimacy that Woodley and Teller build with their marvelous, stunningly deep performances gives the film its most effective moments.

The film’s supporting cast perfectly complements both performers, and even small roles from Bob Odenkirk and Andre Royo leave impressions. Mary Elizabeth Winstead (who starred in Ponsoldt’s “Smashed”) does subtle, affecting work as Keely’s sister, and Larson is appealing and purposeful as his ex-girlfriend.

The script from Michael Weber and Scott Neustadter is a simply told, gorgeously observed exploration of the way people’s personalities imprint on and bleed into each other, filtered through a legitimately heartfelt teen romance. Ponsoldt uses long, talky tracking shots to build Keely and Finecky’s relationship, and perfectly captures the spontaneity, beauty and heart-wrenching stakes of being young and falling in love.

What really makes “The Spectacular Now” stand out is the profound emotions it’s able to evoke. Teller and Woodley’s chemistry and Ponsoldt’s unwavering tonal control over every moment charm you into investing in their relationship before the film delves into unexpectedly dark territory, making every messy emotion or harrowing development all the more immediate and gripping. While some of the developments in the third act feel a bit contrived or unconvincing, the uniformly excellent performances keep things compelling, and Teller deserves commendation for how tender he makes a scene that could have come across as overly dramatic.

The honesty and naturalism that the film brings to its central romance, coupled with the enormously moving performances, make “The Spectacular Now” an authentic, powerful film, and one of the year’s best. While Ponsoldt’s smart, strong direction makes a great case for watching more of his work, if Teller and Woodley continue to bring such assured depth and charisma to the screen, they’ll quickly become some of the most essential actors of our generation.