This small scale American indie delivered probably my most satisfying experience to date at this year's festival. I knew it had been warmly received upon release in the US but aside from that I knew nothing else of the plot, having not seen the trailer. It turns out that Short Term 12 is a sensitive, tender drama that deserves wider recognition. It features a handful of wonderful performances that bring characters from all sides of the story to life and what could have been dour and mawkish turns into something honest and uplifting.
Brie Larson, who's previously illuminated supporting roles in 21 Jump Street and Scott Pilgrim Vs The World, plays Grace, a twenty-something woman who dedicates her life to helping the inhabitants of a care-home for at risk adolescents. Grace has had troubles of her own in the past and although she's still coming to terms with them, her experience helps her relate to the teens. Along with her colleague and partner, Mason (John Gallagher Jr), her day consists of giving the teens routine, support and helping to control their less sociable outbursts.
Both Larson and Gallagher Jr bring humour and warmth to the roles and their own relationship is believable and touching. The ensemble of care-home inhabitants is universally strong but particular praise goes to mini-Mos Def (in looks and talent) Keith Stanfield as aspiring rapper Marcus and Kaitlyn Dever as Jayden, whose own situation brings to the fore painful memories for Grace.
The plot and characters may be familiar but director Destin Cretton judges the tone perfectly and has subsequently moved very near to the top of my directors to watch list. Larson is the real star though, delivering a tremendous performance, locating the fine balance between steel and fragility. It's a delicate indie gem and if you are unable to get to the festival, see it as soon as you can when it goes on general release on 1 November.
Playing as the Thrill gala, Mystery Road is another striking Australian drama that although not quite up to the level of recent exports, Animal Kingdom and Snowtown, is still a strong genre offering from another distinctive Antipodean voice. Jay Swan (Aaron Pederen) is an Aboriginal detective who has returned to his hometown after a stint in the city. His first major case is the murder of an Aboriginal girl which brings simmering racial tensions to the fore. It's a slow-burner, some might say too slow - the Thrill moniker is applied loosely, but the story and locale are fascinating and it builds to a terrific climax. Pedersen is also a brooding, captivating presence - think an Aboriginal Russell Crowe.
Lucky McKee may sound more like a character from Balamory than a purveyor of cinematic horror but after his brutal last film The Woman shocked audiences with its tale of a feral woman captured and tortured by a successful country lawyer, he became one of the genres most notable talents. His latest offering, All Cheerleaders Die, may surprise some as although it's not without horror moments, it is a far more playful and comedic affair, providing a spin on the traditional high school comedy. After four cheerleaders are killed in a car crash, one of their classmates manages to bring them back to life using a bag of magic crystals. The four newly resurrected girls look (mostly) normal except they struggle to control their libido and they now require human blood to stay upright. If all this sounds pretty bonkers, it's because it is. There's a strong anarchic feel to proceedings and McKee and co-director Sivertson should be applauded for creating an atmosphere where it feels like anything could happen. It's mostly fun, although even at under 90 minutes, it feels long and some plot developments stretch incredulity.
Finally, The Punk Singer is a lovingly made documentary about Bikini Kill and Le Tigre lead singer and leading light of the Riot Grrrl movement, Kathleen Hanna. Appropriately the film has a ragged, DIY feel and the list of contributors, including members of Sleater Kinney and The Beastie Boys, is diverse and impressive. It also takes a moving, emotional turn as the reasons for Hanna's enforced 2005 retirement become clear. If you're not familiar with Hanna or her work, this is a great entry point to an engaging and indomitable musical force.