Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Starring: Brie Larson, John Gallagher Jr.
Rating: 4 out of 5 level drops. This highly regarded indie movie of last summer is well deserving of its critical praise, and actually deserves even more recognition than that, in my opinion; after finally seeing it, I can honestly say it exceeded my expectations. It is somehow not enough to say it is poignant and powerful, even though it is both those things, of course. But it is also an important and emotional snapshot, successfully intimate and breezily genuine in execution, anchored most of all by strong performances, filled with authenticity, pain, and hope.
The film revolves mainly around Grace, played impeccably well by Larson, who works at a foster care facility for at-risk teens. We are more or less placed right into the middle of the day-to-day functions and routines of this environment, and we see Grace’s love for these kids and for her work in every scene. But, through this, we also get a glimpse, more like subtle hints, into Grace’s own personal struggles– it takes the film a while to reveal where those struggles emerged from in the first place, which is logical seeing as she tries to keep them buried but finds them increasingly impossible to fully ignore.
The film is so well constructed in that sense; we are always left wondering about these characters, not to mention rooting for them. Grace’s boyfriend and co-worker at the facility, Mason, played with an endearing, realistic sense of charm and lovable charisma by Gallagher J.r., adds some much needed comic relief to the film, but even he spent his youth in foster care, we learn; he is never so goofy that we take him as nothing more than comic relief then, but rather, he is just as full and complex of a character as Grace, fluctuating between humor, concern and impatience throughout the film, particularly as Grace descends deeper into her own fragile, frayed emotional psyche, causing tension in their relationship.
Also, we don’t merely see the kids through Grace’s eyes; we eventually come to understand Grace through these kids too. When a new girl, Jayden, is brought to the facility, Grace begins to see herself in her, and reflect upon her own past through her, and their connection is alternately tumultuous and touching. The audience is aligned with Grace, yes, but in moments like these, when bits of Grace’s past begin to resurface, we come to understand those pieces through external catalysts such as Jayden (as well as news of Grace’s pregnancy and her father’s imminent release from prison).
The teens themselves also give the story enormous depth and heart; the freestyle rap scene between Marcus and Mason is chilling to say the least. The film is so careful to never be overly dramatic though, despite these themes and issues, or overly sentimental either, when that definitely could have been a pitfall too; we sympathize, even empathize, but never pity those we see on screen. We are too affected, too involved. There is such a balance of tones, and a sort of raw and yet unassuming presence of the camera, that the film feels like real life, and that, I think, is why the film works so well.