There is a slowly growing list of movies that through no fault of their own seem to drift into the background as the years go by, pushed into the shadows as much bigger and more attention grabbing spectacles force their way through to jostle for the limelight. For the most part forgotten films are forgotten for good reason – either just not good enough to warrant acclaim or not bad enough to leech onto anyone’s memory – justifiably dismissed for the studies in blandness they are, average pieces that deservedly receive too short a stay in cinemas or better yet skip a theatrical release entirely. Every now and then though a movie slips through the cracks that doesn’t fit the normal path to becoming passed over. Critical darlings that strike a chord with all who see it, garnering widespread praise and award nominations from the outset, only to quietly lose ground in its standing years later.
The list is frustratingly long. In the last decade alone we’ve seen films like Take Shelter, the emotional and paranoid thriller that is still the best work of Jeff Nichols’ career yet somehow lost amongst his more high profile releases Mud, Midnight Special and Loving. 2007’s The Savages, the aching family drama that came during such a long run of great performances by its stars Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman that it’s been almost taken for granted ever since. The depressing but rewarding Sherrybaby that gave us Maggie Gyllenhaal’s heartbreaking turn as a recovering drug addict, a role that received many nominations but like the movie itself was routinely left in the wake of Helen Mirren’s award show dominating showing in The Queen. And there is the patron saint of the unfairly overlooked movie, Nicole Holofcener, the director of a slew of subtle, intimate and brilliantly realistic films. Hers is a name that rarely gets brought up in any best director lists but she deserves to go down as one of the all-time great American filmmakers.
New to the list is Short Term 12. Adapted from a short film made for his university thesis, director Destin Daniel Cretton tells the story of Grace, the supervisor at a group home for troubled teenagers. The plot is simple, yet wildly effective – while helping these damaged youths the stresses begin to mount up and Grace feels herself slowly unravelling. After discovering she is pregnant to her co-worker and long-time partner Mason, a new arrival at the home brings with her some startling similarities to Grace’s own life, forcing her to confront the issues from her past. Cretton isn’t shy in reaching for sentimentality, but does so in a comforting and understated way, bathing the film in a sunlight haze and allowing his cast to casually inhabit the screen. Cretton has had experience working at the kind of facility he’s outlining in his film, and it clearly shows. The film never feels forced or unnecessary. He creates a loose and noisy atmosphere in the home – kids’ voices overlapping in the background, laughing, yelling, and gossiping. It sets a realistic tone from the outset.
It also helps that he has such an accomplished actress in the lead role. Brie Larson is phenomenal. Her Oscar winning role in Room is the performance people go back to, but her turn here is just as incredible. She’s not a chameleon in the Cate Blanchett mold, but she embodies all the hurt and pain of her character like she’s absorbed her entire history, revealing small pieces here and there through simple body language and devastatingly emotive eyes. Her second half is heart wrenching, and completely holds the film together in its latter stages. She also has a natural ability to let others have their turn centre stage, allowing the situation to work its way through each character. Immediate chemistry with another actor is an underrated quality for any star to have, and Larson is one of the best in the business. She is just as adept at carrying a scene as she is at providing a springboard for her fellow cast members, most notably with John Gallagher, Jr. as Mason. He’s a comforting presence for the viewer as much as he is for Grace, and Larson allows him the room to breathe and provide the movie with its thick vein of hope.
The third act threatens to lose its way, with Grace chasing her ghosts as far as they’ll take her. Cretton and Larson pull us further and further into Grace’s turmoil, completely absorbing us in her despair. It staggers slightly on its way to the finish line, but is handled with such delicacy that it almost doesn’t matter. This is such a beautiful and moving film, wonderfully bookended by a story about a former resident at the home, told by Mason with an easy going charm that is quickly becoming Gallagher’s forte. It’s a heartwarming bow Cretton ties around his movie, leaving it with a gorgeous optimism that can’t help but bring a smile to your face. Teaming once again with Larson for the upcoming The Glass Castle, Cretton is slowly building a resume that drips with the subtle emotion artists like Kenneth Lonergan and Holofcener are known for.
And as with any Holofcener film, his work is likely to be more and more underappreciated by the vast majority of film watchers with every passing year. The list of forgotten brilliance will continue to grow, a collection of hidden gems some will view as mere stepping stones for greater pieces – the Bottle Rocket to its more fully realized successor Rushmore, the You Can Count On Me to the later Oscar bothering Manchester By The Sea. Most others may just miss it entirely. Maybe the list shouldn’t be looked at as a bad thing though. For the majority of people who see them, these films are treasured and adored. Rather than being overlooked, they’ve simply become beloved secrets for anyone lucky enough to stumble upon them. Short Term 12 is the epitome of that idea – a film to be cherished regardless of what list it appears on.