The Cautious Joy of Short Term 12

Short Term 12 is a hopeful movie about seemingly hopeless lives. It shows us young people whose stories already appear permanently written—desperately so—and then suggests they still can be rewritten. It is that rarest of films: one whose very flaws teach us to accept everyone else’s. Even our own.

At its center is Grace (Brie Larson), the floor supervisor of a co-ed group home for adolescents who aren’t safe anywhere else. Scrubbed free of makeup, clad in tee shirts and jeans, and straddling the ten-speed she rides every day to work, she looks barely older than the kids she’s supervising. When she opens her mouth, though, it’s clear she is tapping into a core that only could have developed through years of hard-earned survival. The kids themselves are not so broken that they don’t still engineer scenario after scenario from which they must be rescued, if only to gauge whether someone still will. Grace and her colleagues willingly step up to those plates, cueing institutional methodology that works mostly because of their brisk, jocular kindness. One kid in particular—a scrawny-chested boy who caresses his collection of fuzzy dolls like they’re magic talismans—likes to don a cape and bolt from the institutional grounds until staff members tackle him in big bear hugs. Maybe he just runs to get hugged. So much of this film reminds us of how much we do either to get hugged or to avoid a hug lest we then feel too much.

There’s a tidiness to the plotting that doesn’t quite work. Early on, Grace discovers she’s pregnant and schedules an abortion. Soon after, Jayden (Kaitlyn Deve), the daughter of her boss’ friend, is checked onto her ward. Stonily fragile and bearing the unmistakable scars of a cutter, Jayden strikes a chord in Grace, who senses the girl’s secret is like her own. Continue Reading →

The Church of Italian Men: The Creature

En route to the coffee shop this Sunday morning, I was about as cross as I ever get. My 12-year-old car had been making a noise so ominous that I’d been forced to hoof it through the rain, and my cute umbrella was nowhere to be found. To make matters worse I was uncharacteristically nursing a hangover, which not only made coffee essential but the walk to fetch it pure misery.

Suffice it to say I’d not had the greatest Saturday night. It’d been the stuff of which Cathy Comics, rather than French movies, were made, and my hangover stemmed as much from the company I’d kept as from anything I’d actually imbibed.

So it was a morning when no one would’ve dared claim I was looking my best. Puffy-eyed and sallow, I was wearing the same matronly blue dress I’ve worn nearly every morning this summer—in my defense, dresses with pockets are very hard to come by—and my unbrushed hair stank of other people’s cigarettes and bad perfume. Nonetheless, as I passed the local pasticcera, one of the Italian fellows loitering under its awning looked me up and down, let out a low wolf whistle, and winked. Instantly I felt a million times better.

I’ve never been offended by that kind of male attention, never thought it compromised any of my deeply felt feminist principles. True, I don’t dig hustles or the you-like-what-I-like-so-I-like-you narcissism that passes for modern courtship. But a guy who just puts it out there without telegraphing his desire as a threat? Fuggedaboutit. That’s old-school Brooklyn in the very best way. More to the point, that’s Italian men.

To be clear, I don’t mean “Italian-American” men. I am referring to the men who were born in Italy rather than the ones who have an Italian grandmother. I am referring to the men who bolt espressos rather than Dunkin’ Doughnut coffees to keep their hearts beating. I am referring to the men who mostly speak in grunts, hisses, and explicit hand gestures.

I had one of those boyfriends. He was tall and broad-shouldered with long, ropy arms, old-soul eyes, and tanned, rosy skin. I met him not far from the Long Island beach house my friends and I rented one summer. He was working construction as a literal WOP—that old derogatory acronym for an Italian guy without papers—and when I walked by his site he whistled through his teeth. I looked up to find him nodding his head. “Principessa,” he said. Or at least that’s what I thought he said. I was distracted by his slow, sexy grin. Continue Reading →

Death by Casting: Prince Avalanche’s Tale

Prince Avalanche begins as silently as any of David Gordon Green’s films do: with footage of the forest fire-ravaged 1988 Texas landscape, followed by the figures of two men wordlessly performing roadwork in the same area. The images are lovely and terrible, lackadaisical and strained—the oddly comforting dissonance that characterizes all of Green’s dramas.

But as the film revs up, the THC-inspired goofiness of his comedies The Pineapple Express and Your Highness quickly creeps in. The two men are Alvin (Paul Rudd) and Lance (Emile Hirsch), and we grasp their Abbot and Costello dynamics long before we sort out any other details of their relationship. While tasked with repairing the roads in the region, they are roughing it in the wilderness. Alvin, older, heftier, and more self-possessed, gently bosses Lance, who seems impervious to everything above the waist. (You know you’re dealing with unusually short men when Rudd looms as the big man in the duo.) While Alvin writes letters and studies German, Lance flips through comic books. While Alvin sleeps in their shared tent, Lance jerks off. The elder’s Achille’s heel reveals itself soon enough, however: It’s Madison, Lance’s sister, whom Alvin loves but also has fled. In his own way, Alvin is at least as much of a fuckup as Lance, whom he has speculated may be “mildly retarded.”

When the weekend arrives, Lance hightails it back to town in the hopes of getting laid, and Alvin basks in his solitude. He fishes; he reads; he wanders through the woods, a reverie of saturated greens and rust colors. And it’s at that point that Paul Rudd, rather than Alvin, begins to shimmer into focus. For Alvin gets silly as only Rudd can: He flops in the water. He does a weird jig. He juts his hip out at a crazy angle. He is, in other words, too cartoonlishly outsized to read legibly as a guy foolish only in his degree of anal-retentiveness—a guy who has sought a Thoreau-like isolation to cool his dangerous temper. Alvin may be slotted as the straight man in this mundo bizarro but Rudd can’t help but put a wag in his tail. Continue Reading →

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy