Fidelity to life isn't the only standard by which art can be judged; at Sundance yesterday, director Marjane Satrapi made quick work of a psychiatrist in the audience who objected to the portrayal of mental illness in her stylized fantasia The Voices. But with a movie like Short Term 12, Destin Daniel Cretton's account of life in a short-term care facility for at-risk youth, the question of authenticity comes quickly to bear. Cretton based the film on his experiences working in a similar facility, and shot in a style that evokes his mixed background in fiction and documentary film. While most critics praised the film, especially the central performance by Brie Larson, a few took issue with the familiar shape of Cretton's story, arguing that its neat character arcs and modestly upbeat ending undermine its pretenses to realism.
Few, if any critics, are better equipped to judge the authenticity of Short Term 12 than The Dissolve's Nathan Rabin, who wrote about his years in a group home in his memoir, The Big Rewind. Ever since seeing the film, I've wondered what Rabin would make of it, and he's finally offered his take in a powerful and poignant article.
Even having written about that period in his life before, Rabin was wary of the film: It's one thing to wrestle your own life into a narrative shape, and quite another to let someone else take the wheel. But Rabin has few, if any, qualms with Short Term 12, although perhaps it's telling that he spends less time on the film's ostensible protagonist than he does on the children in her care.
"Watching Short Term 12," Rabin writes, "made me realize that I began the process of forgetting well before I left the group home: Living there meant blocking out a lot of pain and anger, lest they become overwhelming." But though the memories Short Term 12 brought back were not always pleasant, the cumulative effect was tonic:
Watching the film was painful for all the right reasons. It was also cathartic. There is value in forgetting, but Short Term 12 has helped me realize that there’s value in remembering as well, for yourself and for others. Sometimes, coming back into contact with the formative pain that shaped us can help us have more compassion for others, as well as for the tormented souls we used to be.
The best criticism is always personal, but rarely as transparently or as eloquently so as Rabin's essay.