Film: Synthetic Humans, Analog Machines

Is it possible for a movie to be too sensitive for its own good?

That’s the question I kept asking myself while seeing Short Term 12, a well received indie drama that took this year’s South by Southwest Film Festival by storm and walked away with grand jury and audience awards for Best Narrative Feature.

The accolades bestowed upon the film, which is mostly set in a foster care facility where teens and preteens are temporarily allocated before they turn 18 or, in a character’s words, “the county figures out where they go next,” make it even more perplexing to me how so many people fell hook, line and sinker for a movie that fashions itself gritty and naturalistic but actually comes across as trite and hokey. There’s no doubt writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton, who adapted his 2008 short of the same name to feature length, has his heart in the right place, but the way he goes about demanding the audience’s empathy is by practically smothering viewers into submission. This is Cinema That’s Good-For You!

Not that the film is poorly acted. The capable ensemble cast, headed by Brie Larson and John Gallagher Jr. as caretakers at the film’s titular setting, tackle their roles with admirable care and attention to character quirks. It is also skillfully shot by cinematographer Brett Pawlak. And for all their gallant efforts, they still cannot prevent Short Term 12 from feeling uncannily like being stuck in group therapy with a bunch of bratty punks intent on finding ways to push their supervisors’ buttons to see how much they can get away with.

Ultimately, though, the film is not really their story, but how the kids’ grim outlook influences the struggle Grace (Larson) endures as she confronts her own demons. The spunky, no-nonsense twentysomething runs Short Term 12 with firm efficiency that occasionally segues into maternal warmth. “You’re not her parent, you’re not their friend,” she tells new hire Nate (Rami Malek), who makes the colossal mistake of referring to the kids as “underprivileged” in front of them.

It’s an open secret that Grace and shaggy mensch Mason (Gallagher Jr.) have been in a long-term relationship for the past three years. Mason often plays good cop to Grace’s bad cop routine. Whereas the latter is not above using a water gun to force a sleepy boy out of bed, her likable, bearded boyfriend will play a bongo drum to give Marcus (Keith Stanfield), a sullen budding rapper on the verge of turning 18, the beat he needs to try out his latest, expletive-filled creation.

This motley crew has its ups and downs, but they get along well along better than most dysfunctional families I know. Enter brooding sourpuss Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), who has landed at the facility, she insists, for a limited time, as Daddy will regain custody of her real soon, just you wait and see. Grace takes an immediate liking to the girl, even when she responds to the no-naughty-pics-on-the-walls rule by posting scientific images of penises. The smarty pants with the funky Olive Oyl stockings bonds with the kind authoritarian, but instead of allowing their bond to grow organically, Cretton relentlessly drives home the notion that Grace sees herself in the new arrival, right down to both characters’ penchant for drawing her surroundings. The director thinks he’s being clever. Actually, he’s making the movie even more obnoxious.

There’s an unpleasant disparity between Pawlak’s lived-in camerawork and the deliberate, scripted exchanges between the characters. Whenever he doesn’t overdo his charm offensive, Cretton the director elicits fine work from his actors, even if one wishes mellow boy-next-door Mason would grow a pair. Cretton the screenwriter, on the other hand, never met a contrivance he didn’t like. The kids act out in all kinds of predictable ways with clockwork precision, and the filmmakers’ stabs at achieving realism just make the narrative’s synthetic nature stick out like a sore thumb that much more conspicuously. Joel P. West’s precious, intrusive string-driven music score does not help matters.

Short Term 12 is the cinematic equivalent of a puppy that tugs on your leg, desperately yearning for your affections. It wants to be liked so aggressively that it ends up having the opposite effect. Give this sanctimonious group hug the kick in the rear it deserves.

A dry tonic to Cretton’s saccharine brand of humanism arrives in the form of a black-and-white oddity that brings an insular subculture in a very specific time period to life with laudable formal rigor. Computer Chess, the new film from mumblecore royalty Andrew Bujalski (Beeswax), takes place over a weekend at a drab, nondescript hotel where computer geeks come together for the annual North American Computer Chess Tournament. Pasty Ivy Leaguers face off against each other, but it’s their computers that call the shots on the checkered board. It’s the early 80s, you see, and those tiny monitors serve as a window into the future. It’s the birth of the digital age, vividly rendered in defiantly analog terms.

Like a cat that steadfastly refuses to be petted – and there are plenty of those in the surreal universe Bujalski creates – Computer Chess forges ahead with this bespectacled, socially awkward bunch with zero inclinations to make them likable or accessible to viewers who might be unfamiliar with the period. “Guys like you are like Mars to me,” observes a character. No kidding, Brainy and gawky in equal measures, the film is more interested in the chess game that’s taking place behind the scenes at this geekfest, in which a showcase for that most civilized of board games brings out the most Darwinian instincts.

The ineffably strange Computer Chess opens Friday at the Miami Beach Cinematheque (mbcinema.com). That same day Short Term 12 begins its hand-holding sessions at O Cinema (o-cinema.org) at Miami Shores.

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