Human Behavior: SHORT TERM 12 and DON JON

Short Term 12 Brie Larson and Keith Stanfield

SHORT TERM 12

On the TV series UNITED STATES OF TARA, Alison Brie excelled at playing a complicated teenager: initially shallow and self-absorbed, over three seasons her character convincingly grew into a somewhat wiser, if still searching young adult. Still, if you only know Brie from that show or from supporting parts in SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD and THE SPECTACULAR NOW, her leading turn here is a revelation. As Grace, a young woman managing a group home for at-risk teens, Brie exudes confidence without any strain or palpable effort. You immediately sense how mature and genuine for her age Grace is, and how naturally she acts as a caregiver who can transition between nurturing and disciplining her charges.  She also conveys how her professional demeanor co-exists with her personal anxieties and concerns—both those she shares with her co-worker/long-term boyfriend, the lovably scruffy Mason (John Gallagher, Jr.) and those she can’t bring herself to divulge, not to him or anyone else.

Writer/Director Destin Cretton is also someone to watch. An adaptation/expansion of his own short, the film occasionally reminds me of Ryan Fleck’s and Anna Boden’s HALF NELSON (also adapted from a short), particularly in how carefully it reveals various plot points—for instance, we gradually learn something relevant about Mason’s past during a family reunion, but your heart almost skips a beat upon discovering it because it’s relayed so beautifully that the sentiment it invites feels earned.  Likewise, when Marcus (Keith Stanfield), one of the elder teens asks the others to each take a sheet of colored paper, it’s a seemingly random, unexplained moment that fully resonates a few scenes on. If Cretton doesn’t prevent Grace’s burgeoning angst from turning into melodrama late in the film, at least he allows her (and the audience) some release. While it provides ample closure for Grace and Mason, the film’s cyclical conclusion also reinforces a notion rare in a medium where happy endings are the norm: some problems aren’t fully solvable, so you learn to deal with them the best, most proactive way you possibly can.  Grade: A-

don jon

DON JON

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is the rare child actor who, as an adult has sculpted a markedly distinct career and identity. He’s also difficult to pin down, having convincingly played everything from a gay hustler (MYSTERIOUS SKIN) to a lovesick indie-boy ((500) DAYS OF SUMMER) to a thinking person’s action hero (LOOPER). In this, his directorial debut, he stars as Jon Martello, a New Jersey muscle-head. An upstanding working-class mook devoted to his friends, family and church, he fashions himself a ladies’ man, albeit one who finds more pleasure out of watching pornography than from having sex with actual women. Jon is not a type you’d ever expect Gordon-Levitt to pull off, but he fully commits to the part. His thoroughness in making Jon more than just a caricature aptly parallels the character’s own obsessive, rigorous behavior.

As an actor, Gordon-Levitt has great chemistry with both Scarlett Johansson (as Barbara, a beautiful but domineering nice girl he attempts to date), and Julianne Moore (as Esther, a slightly quirky middle-aged woman he befriends while taking a night college class). As a director, however, he’s assured but not always successful. His use of repetition (such as multiple shots of Jon walking down a gym hallway to his daily workout) is effective in depicting Jon as a slave to his routines, but sometimes his quick, transitional cuts come off as flashy and superfluous. The film’s first half is also tonally inconsistent, as if he’s unsure whether to satirize or sympathize with the macho dude culture Jon seems the epitome of. Happily, the film’s second half is steadier and considerably deeper, particularly as Esther becomes a more prominent figure in Jon’s life. Admittedly, it’s a little corny—life lessons are learned and Jon, despite himself, becomes a Better Person. But Gordon-Levitt and his cast (which also includes a very funny Alison Brie as Jon’s mute-by-choice sister) know how to sell such hokum. DON JON has its share of broad strokes (so to speak), but as a whole, it leaves a pleasantly sweet aftertaste.  Grade: B

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