Short Term 12 and The World’s End: Two of my Favorite Films of the Year

A few times every year, I come across movies that hit me right where I live. It’s hard to write about movies like this sometimes. I prefer to stick to the tangibles: the performances, the technical aspects, the things on the screen which everyone collectively experiences. However, for Destin Cretton’s exceptional Short Term 12, and for Edgar Wright’s best film to date, The World’s End, I feel like I have to dive in further. These films aren’t just immaculately written, packed with top-drawer performances, and magnificently realized works of art. These are films that make you think about yourself, that conjure up feelings, memories, and emotions past and present, and that make you want to sit down and explain to someone why “this movie spoke to me.” It’s been over a month since I first saw each, and have since encountered both films multiple times, each experience richer and more emotional than the last. They are absolute must-sees. I’ll be going in depth after the jump, spoiling some of the film’s moments. Please see the movies if you haven’t, then read on.

I first encountered Short Term 12 at the Los Angeles Film Festival, where it was the best film I saw all week. As I sat in the audience for Ain’t Them Bodies Saints afterward, I felt bad that it essentially had no chance to build upon what I’d just seen (it didn’t). Short Term 12 takes place at a foster-care facility for at-risk teens. It is predominantly run by young people, people in their twenties not much older than those for whom they care. Our focus is on Grace (Brie Larson), a supervisor who has a troubled past of her own. She’s dating a fellow employee, Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), who is crazy about her, but we see how her past haunts her; in an early scene, she instigates sex with Mason, much to his surprise/delight, but as it gets going, when Mason reaches for her crotch, she impulsively slaps him hard in the face, lost in the moment and the bad memories the feeling trudged up. She finds out towards the beginning that she is pregnant, and her response is non-plussed, immediately scheduling an abortion. When asked if she’s had an abortion before, she pauses and says, “… once.”

Grace and Mason help show the ropes to a new employee, Nate (Rami Malek), who immediately screws up by accidentally referring to the children as “under-privileged.” He means no harm, but Marcus (Keith Stanfield), one of the older children, takes exception to this phrase. Marcus is dealing with issues of his own: he will soon be too old to stay in this facility any more, and since he’s never felt any happiness away from it, he acts up early on, in hopes of… well, he doesn’t even know. He knows that the worst-case scenario, juvie, is still better than the outside. We also get a new foster-care teen in the facility, Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), whose father is a friend of a friend of the man who runs Short Term 12. She’s been trouble, so she’ll cool her heels during the week and get picked up by her dad to stay with him when he sees fit. Jayden is resistant to befriend anyone, especially Grace; she thinks Grace is simply trying to be her boss, and that her gestures of friendship are mere manipulations. Grace, however, sees a great deal of herself in Jayden, and as we learn more about Jayden, we see that the darkness under her surface may not be dissimilar from what motivates Grace.

I’ve worked with children for over a decade now. In high school and college, I worked at the Jewish Community Alliance theater camp in Jacksonville during summers, and shortly after college, I became a high school drama teacher in northern Virginia. I was struck from my first days of being in charge of children by how much these kids looked up to you. Regardless of their posturing or their “coolness,” they want your respect, your input. The man who ran the JCA during my time there would recount a story at every orientation about the one time a teacher said something mean to him; out of all of the countless insults we encounter throughout our lives, it’s the ones from the teachers– those older figures whose respect we crave– that really stick with you. The same goes, in my experience, for positive reinforcement: I can remember every accolade that a teacher or camp counselor I loved ever gave me. Each teacher who gave me respect and treated me like an equal unquestionably influenced me and made me the man I am today. I held onto that while working with young people, and Cretton’s screenplay understands this perfectly. The supervisors are fully aware of the responsibility in their hands, and the teen characters accurately depict how children in need are likely to behave.

The opening scene, for example, strikes just the right chord. They sit around and tell the story of Mason chasing down a troubled teen after his escape and the hilarity that ensues. I’ve worked with all manner of kids with disabilities and troubled backgrounds: from kids that hadn’t spoken in years to kids from rough neighborhoods to kids with negligent parents to kids dealing with autism or Down syndrome. You wouldn’t think it from the previous sentence, but the majority of memories I have working with these kids are absolutely hilarious, tales of misunderstanding or triumph that never fail to put a smile on my face. The employees in Short Term 12 howl with laughter at Mason’s story. Nate asks innocently afterward what happened to the kid, and Grace deadpans that he killed himself shortly thereafter. Mason sighs, “I don’t like that part.” Short Term 12 is deadly accurate throughout regarding the humor and soulfulness of working with children that need help, and the daggers of cold reality that pierce their way in when you least expect them.

At one point, Grace detects Jayden crying out for help: her father abuses her, and while Jayden can’t come out and say it, Grace sees it crystal clear. Grace files a report with her superior and goes home. When she comes in the next day, Jayden is gone; her boss let her father come pick her up. Grace flies into a rage, and her boss shrugs– without concrete evidence, the state cannot justify blah blah blah. Any teacher, counselor, or employee who has ever worked with children will be as devastated by this scene as I was. I can’t count the times I wanted to barge into a superior’s office and scream about how a kid needed help, only to be informed coolly about protocol, politics, and what “standard procedure is.” Anyone who has ever worked with children knows that there is no “standard procedure” for a child, especially a child desperate enough to look to a teacher/counselor for help. Grace grabs her boss’ beloved lamp, takes it outside, and smashes it on the ground. A small victory– it can barely be called a victory– but anyone who’s worked with children, or, hell, anyone who has ever worked for the government knows precisely how Grace feels.

I wasn’t only Grace in my mind; I was Mason. I was Marcus. I was Jayden. I was Nate (God, how this film flashed me back to my first weeks of teaching). Destin Cretton has written a film that is full of rich, lived-in characters; its plot description may not feel too separated from Degrassi or some soap for young people, but the tenderness with which the drama is handled makes all the difference in the world. Every scene feels perfect: the warmth with which even the smallest character is sketched and portrayed makes the whole Short Term 12 facility roar with life. I could sit here and give special accolades to every terrific performance (Stanfield and Gallagher Jr. are particularly great in support), but the movie belongs to Larson. She’s been on the radar for a while now, as her open face and earnest glare draw you immediately in when she shows up in films like 21 Jump Street and The Spectacular Now. Here, she catapults past what you may have perceived her potential to be. She can go from heartbreaking to deadpan hilarious in the blink of an eye. Grace is the heart of this movie, and Larson does her justice, bringing home one of the best performances of the year in one of the best films of the year. I can’t think of a single person who wouldn’t adore this film. This deserves the widest audience imaginable, giving you the gamut of emotions and sending you out of the theater filled to the brim with warmth and positivity.

The World’s End is, stylistically, the opposite. Short Term 12 is a surprisingly hilarious drama; The World’s End a surprisingly deep and dramatic comedy. Short Term 12 shows young people re-affirming life; The World’s End shows older people wishing they were young again so they could believe in life-affirming bullshit again. They’re too old, they’ve lived too much at this point to expect anything better. Grace in Short Term 12 is defined by the depth of her caring; Gary King in The World’s End is defined by his selfishness. Grace is scared to look back; Gary is scared to look anywhere but back. Short Term 12 feels like a no-budget indie character drama; The World’s End puts every dollar on screen, giving us precise edits, wide scope, and John Carpenter-esque special effects. Yet The World’s End was no less moving to me than Short Term 12. It’s a film about not being able to go home again, about growing apart, about longing for everything to be exactly like it was in the glory days. While I’m not at the age of Gary King, I feel confident anyone over the mid-twenties border will understand the restlessness to either re-live the past or to move on entirely from it.

Gary King (Simon Pegg) begins the film by recounting an epic tale from his childhood. He and his four best friends tackle The Golden Mile, a mile-long stretch of twelve pubs in their hometown. They would drink a pint at each and move along. As the booze began to take its toll, some friends dropped off, trouble was found, and the pub crawl never made it to the final bar, appropriately titled The World’s End. When we jump to modern times, we see this story being told by Gary… to a support group, seated in a circle of folding chairs. We’re not entirely sure what brought Gary here yet, but it’s a stark taste of reality after the merry flashback. After Gary finishes his gleeful memory, the others in the group move on with the meeting, yet the idea has been hatched: Gary wants to get the gang back together and give the Golden Mile one more try. He recruits everyone: Peter (Eddie Marsan), the youngest in the group, now married; Oliver (Martin Freeman), picked on in the group, now a successful realtor; Steven (Paddy Considine), who competed with Gary for the affection of Oliver’s sister Samantha (Rosamund Pike); and Andy (Nick Frost), Gary’s former best friend, now sober, skeptical, and estranged from Gary. The others are surprised when Gary lies to them and says Andy’s coming. Little do they know, to get Andy to come, Gary pays back an old debt… using money borrowed from the other friends. He also tells Andy that his mom died, guilting Andy into attending, despite his better judgment.

The guys can see that Gary hasn’t changed, but they don’t realize the extent until the road trip home. Gary rolls up in the same car he drove during the first Golden Mile– “The Beast,” Gary calls it. He had to replace nearly everything on the inside, but hey, it’s the same car! He pops in a tape, which plays The Soup Dragons’ “I’m Free.” Gary passionately sings along: “I’m free! To do what I want! Any old time!” Why wouldn’t he? It’s Gary’s life philosophy. Steven remarks that he put this on a tape for Gary back in the day; Gary replies it’s the same tape. When asked where he found it, Gary is puzzled. “The tape player,” he deadpans. Gary has done everything he can to preserve the sameness of his childhood, and everyone else is unnerved– he was an animal back in the day, how will he be now that desperate nostalgia is added to the mix?

Arriving at the first pub, Gary is delighted by how great it feels back in the old stomping ground. Everyone else notices the truth: the pub has been completely renovated, shiny and new. Gary ignores this, comments that it smells the same, and joyously gets to drinking. When they move to the second pub, they see that it too has been renovated and looks exactly like the first. There’s some lamenting about the corporate Starbucking of local businesses, but Gary King won’t sink into that reality. Down the road, however, Gary is the first to realize a startling truth: it’s not just the town that’s changed, it’s the people. At first, they merely seem like flavorless conformists, but after a bathroom brawl, Gary discovers the real truth: they’re robots. The robots eventually try to reason with them, saying that they aren’t robots at all; “robot” means “slave,” and they’re far from slaves, they simply know what’s best and they want everyone to go along with them. Unsurprisingly, Gary and the gang tells these robots to jog off, and they soon have a full-blown town-wide conflict on their hands.

Have you gone back and visited your college? Or, for younger readers, your high school? It’s an eerie feeling. Most of it feels exactly the same as it did when you were there; you may remember where you ate lunch, where you kissed a significant other, where you frantically finished the homework you forgot that’s due next class, where you favorite class ever was held, and so on. Yet for all of the memories that race back, the changes suck you right back to reality. Sometimes the changes are huge: new places to eat, new technology. Sometimes they’re smaller: a desk now sits in a different place, a teacher you remember moved classrooms. The biggest change of all is looking at the people who are still there; the new students are so much younger than you are, and the teachers/staff who remain look older than you remember. You may find a way to momentarily re-capture the past, but without either some magic or some very willful ignorance, the eternal movement of the hands of time are impossible to forget. In The World’s End, the robots try to trick the old friends into submission by trotting out robot replicas of their crushes from back in the day. The crushes look young and sexy, far younger than the humans they’re seducing… but the humans don’t care, swept up in the memory of seeing these beautiful girls, looking precisely how they looked way back when. Is this willful ignorance due to beer goggles, or merely the power of nostalgia?

The same applies for those who move away from home. I’m from Jacksonville, Florida, and I like to try to visit when I can. Yet every time I visit, more of the city that I remember disappears. Restaurants I enjoyed go out of business, replaced by something else; the places I bought my CDs and DVDs growing up are gone entirely. Several of my best friends still live in Jacksonville, friends of mine since high school, and I absolutely try to rally the crew to do the things we used to love growing up: trivia night, karaoke, perhaps a movie hop at the old multiplex. Yet my grasp on the pleasures of old is tenuous at best. I learned this the hard way once: my friend Craig and I use to frequent a nearby karaoke night every chance we got. We were the only young people there, as the crowd was predominantly composed of kind, middle-aged folk. One year, returning home, I tried to meet Craig there, only to discover that karaoke night was no longer held there. The friends we’d made, the emcee who was so nice to us– gone, lost to time. I’m sure one day I’ll head home and my trivia night will be gone, my current karaoke haunt out of business.

That’s only the physical changes to the town as well: my friends are changing too. When your friends are married with children, it’s sometimes hard to get them to go party the way you used to do. If I want to go out drinking til two in the morning, my friends with 9-to-5 jobs and/or families to get home to are not going to consistently be able to join me. However, does that make my friends’ changes sad… or is my lack of change sadder? The World’s End tackles this question head-on: is it better to join the world of the settled and bid farewell to the myth of personal freedom, thanks to jobs, mortgages, and responsibilities… or is it better to cling hopelessly to freedom with every fiber of your being, staunchly refusing to “grow up,” and risk becoming that one guy at every party who’s slightly too old to be there? As in life, there is no easy answer. One can see in The World’s End that Steven and Andy in particular struggle with the grimmer realities of life; both have gone through relationship turmoil and they seem joyless at their jobs. However, both Steven and Andy can plainly see that Gary’s hero-worship of the younger days is tantamount to lunacy, as Gary can hardly function in society. Is it better to try settling and fail, or is the bliss of societal ignorance possibly preferable? These are the questions we ask ourselves about “growing up” for the rest of our lives.

Edgar Wright has a magnificent gift for creating three-dimensional roles in his comedies. The authorial voice is unquestionably his, as the rhythms of the dialogue and the eccentricities of the wit seep through every pore of every character. However, where most films settle for broad characterizations or a single humorous note to play, every man and woman in Wright’s work is realized. Thematically, his work errs on the side of sprawling, switching its satirical crosshairs back and forth, but his narrative storytelling is first class. Few put more thought into their jokes than Wright. Note how an early joke about the Three Musketeers unfolds over the course of the film, note how “I’m Free” keeps popping up in the dialogue, and note the names of the various pubs and how they relate to the events that transpire within them. Despite the abundance of intelligence, it never feels like it’s trying to outsmart you; everything is organic. Even the action feels organic, with better fight sequences than most summer fare, thanks to inventive choreography, crisp camera work, and sharp edits. The first scene in which everyone joins together to fight the robots results in an extended shot free of evident cuts, to give the chaotic madness some semblance of geography.

Somehow, despite all of the aforementioned foreshadowing, the results are still surprising. The World’s End, after a Terry Gilliam-esque conversation with a higher power, results in the end of the world as we know it. The friends get the happiest endings possible, and everyone seems to have learned how to make their lives better… but there’s been a great deal of debate as to whether Gary’s ending represents change. At film’s end, Gary strolls into a pub, accompanied by robot teenage versions of all of his friends. He asks for five waters, and when the bartender threatens to kick the robots out, Gary prepares to brawl. On the surface, there seems to be no change: he’s still obsessed with his glory days, he’s still trying to pub crawl, he’s still disturbing the peace. Yet two obvious changes emerge: his drink choice and his motivation to brawl. The pre-apocalypse Gary requires beer and enabling from his childhood mates. The post-apocalypse Gary is sober and stands up for his childhood mates. The robot teenage gang emerges from the apocalypse in a new world where they aren’t welcome, and all they know were the glory days of being in charge. Gary likely sympathizes with their plight, and although he undoubtedly gets a rush from being needed by his surrogate friends, being there for his mates instead of leaving them high and dry is an enormous change in Gary’s character.

Although Edgar Wright’s work has all been marvelous to date, this is my favorite of his Cornetto Trilogy with Pegg and Frost. Shaun of the Dead’s abrupt tonal change prevents it from having The World’s End’s relative tonal cohesiveness (even when sci-fi is introduced!), and Hot Fuzz, while possibly the funniest of the lot, lacks the richer themes that The World’s End provides. It also helps that Pegg and Frost have never been better. Frost, after being the daft bumbling one in the first two films, assumes the role of the responsible here, and his transition from defiant sober stiff to defiant drunk fight machine is glorious to behold. I’d love to see Frost in an action film of his own, displaying more of these Sammo Hung style moves. Pegg, meanwhile, gives one of the performances of the year, balancing that ever-fine line between hilarious and despicable. He’s a sad drunk loser escaping into the persona of righteous party god, and the walls of that facade are thick, yet those moments where reality peeks through are crushing. When he desperately needs a pint, sees three unfinished pints sitting outside, and combines them together, it manages to make us laugh while also breaking our heart. His happiness hinges upon the completion of this desperate nostalgic compulsion, and Pegg positively sticks the landing in every scene. In a late scene, when proving to each other they haven’t been replaced by robots, Andy insists Gary show the scar from a life-altering accident that estranged the pair forever, or they’ll kill him. Gary would have to reveal that he recently tried to kill himself in the process, so instead, Gary rams his head into the wall a dozen times. He’d rather concuss himself and get killed by his friend than reveal a chink in his party animal armor.

If you’re still reading at this point, bravo. The point of my rambling essay here was not to imply that enjoyment of these two films hinged upon relating to some character’s plot line or the overarching themes. While I think everyone will relate in some way, that’s not the point. The point is… look, everybody reads an article about the “death of cinema” that some newspaper, magazine, or blog publishes annually. Your friends likely lament, as many of mine do, that movies aren’t as good anymore. While plenty of releases disappoint, I wonder when people make these statements if they’ve seen movies like these: movies about something, with rich characters, suspense, and the full spectrum of emotions. Short Term 12 and The World’s End are movies that sent me from the theater in silence; their themes sticking with me, sending me combing through my feelings and experiences, and individual scenes sticking into me like Excalibur in the stone. A great film is like a great meal, where upon leaving, you simply sit at home and feel full. I easily see between a dozen and two dozen movies every year that I love. These are two of them. Short Term 12 and The World’s End are the type of film that gives me hope every year, that continues to send me back to the cinema, to chase that feeling. Intelligent, heartfelt storytelling at its finest. Death of cinema, my ass.

Both films:

~ by russellhainline on September 25, 2013.

2 Responses to “Short Term 12 and The World’s End: Two of my Favorite Films of the Year”

  1. Really great review! I loved The World’s End as well. I didn’t expect it to be so deep and layered. Haven’t got around to Short Term 12 yet. I think The World’s End is partly a commentary on the state of Hollywood. In terms of it staying the same and copying other movies. This parallels with Gary’s life.

  2. […] Short Term 12 and The World’s End: Two of my Favorite Films of the Year […]

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