Destin Cretton's Short Term 12 and Lionel Baier's Les Grandes Ondes (a L'ouest) (English title: Longwave), screened on the same day at the 66th Locarno Film Festival, underway right now. First glances may imply that the two share little in common, with the former an unflinching American indie drama about a foster care facility and the latter a light and frothy European period piece about a work assignment for two radio journalists.
However, on a deeper look, even if the two features may not form mirror images of each other, they nevertheless reveal small connections. After all, cinema is defined by its multiplicity and the chance to watch similar territory being tread upon in completely different ways is one of its greatest appeals.
In Short Term 12 we meet Grace, a 20-something staff member at a foster care facility. Her hands are perennially full with the daily troubles her profession entails, but two things happen that turn her already-eventful life on its head. A new girl at the facility reminds Grace of her troubled childhood in more ways than one, and she discovers she's pregnant -- a fact that brings her relationship to a turning point.
Cretton's sophomore feature (he debuted with I Am Not a Hipster in 2012) has been sweeping up raves and awards at every festival it's screened at -- it received the Grand Jury Narrative Feature and the Narrative Audience Award at SXSW this year -- and it's easy to see why. This drama took me on emotional roller coaster; no film this year has made me feel more drained and satisfied by the end. Short Term 12 received a sustained standing ovation at the end of its first public screening here, and it's pleasing to note how the film never pulls its punches but also pulls them off.
Longwave based on a true story, is set in April 1974. We follow Julie Dujonc-Renens, a young radio journalist, on an assignment to Portugal, investigating Switzerland's aid to poor countries. On her travels she has to collaborate with Joseph-Marie Cauvin, one of the leading Swiss reporters, and the hardcore feminist comes face-to-face with gender discrimination, assignment hassles and the workers' revolution.
The synopsis above could yield multiple features, even a drama as intense as Short Term 12, but Baier opts to make this a humorous, episodic and slightly surreal travelogue. The obstacles Julie faces function more as stimuli for gags and one-liners and less as transformational experiences. She emerges from the experience wiser but unscathed; the audience may be a few laughs richer by the end but Longwave does little beyond that.
There's nothing wrong with being satisfied with "just" laughs, and Baier's film has plenty of those -- the audience around me in the Piazza Grande were in splits constantly during its 85-minute running time. The chemistry between Valerie Donzelli (who plays Julie) and Michel Vuillermoz (Cauvin) is palpable and the two share an enjoyable dynamic. In Short Term 12, the same can be said for the interplay between Brie Larson (Grace) and John Gallagher Jr. (her boyfriend Mason). The two form an adorable pair, which makes it even worse to see them go through turmoil and us more invested in their eventual fate.
As a protagonist, Grace is immensely likable; it's nigh-impossible not to root for her as she tries to pick up the pieces of her life and get things under control. Cretton doesn't reveal many things to us until a time he deems right, which keeps a lot of Grace's backstory under the wraps from us. A cipher as a lead character is a recipe for audience apathy, but the writing, direction and Brie Larson's brilliant acting in Short Term 12 combine to make us feel there is an ocean behind the blankness and wish her well nevertheless. In Longwave, Julie is a pretty face, a smart professional and midway through an interesting phase in life. However, there is little doubt that she will fail and even less at stake for us as audience members.
There will be times when I will yearn to participate in Grace's ordeal all over again. There will also be times when I would love to lean back and amuse myself over Julie dancing her way through the Carnation Revolution. But, the fundamental difference between the two films is: in Short Term 12 I was biting my nails and wanted to cheer for Grace after the climax. In Longwave I was smiling my way through and, at the end of the movie, I thought, "Hmm. Good for her."