Your Calling: Exploring Human Limits in Short Term 12 and Detachment

March 13, 2015 at 11:14 PM / by

In focus (and currently on Netflix):

Short term 12 directed by Destin Daniel Cretton and Detachment directed by Tony Kaye.

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Does the capacity to help others come to a point where it can hinder us being able to help ourselves?

These are two films about human limits. You have two protagonist, Grace (played by Brie Larsen in Short Term 12) and Henry Barthes (played by Adrien Brody in Detachment). Grace is a supervisor at a residential foster-care facility for at-risk teenagers whose own traumatic life experiences seem to not only be coming back to haunt her, but are a point of motivation for her to help the at-risk youth who enter her facility. On the other hand, we got Henry, a skilled substitute teacher who fades from job to job, lives alone and tends to his mind-degenerating, dying father, and is pained by a childhood trauma.

In both films we examine these characters as they encounter deeply apathetic people, turn the other cheek to their malicious behavior, and choose to dedicate themselves to either raising self-awareness in those troubled individuals or simply responding to them with an open mind and compassion.  Whereas Tony Kaye’s film seems to suggest an apathetic detachment occurring on a broader international scale through an allegorical approach, Destin Cretton’s film examines an isolated incident.

The beauty of both films is that they are attempting, albeit idealistically, to address the deepest issues that have plagued society for a long time, which include, but are not limited to: social detachment,  apathy, suicide, familial rape and sexual harassment. Usually when we go to a film we aren’t expecting to be taught a lesson or expected to submit to a cause, but when you have artwork that depicts honestly and passionately the grim realities of the problems we hear about everyday, but may never see, it can sometimes be difficult to stare the other way. In this sense, art may be able to take us where life can’t always; it may be able to give us more reason to care.

The characters in these films care. Maybe too much. Henry seems on the verge of utter isolation and mania in his crusade to aid others, while Grace tiptoes the razor’s edge, contemplating violence against an offender, as she balances her love life with her duty to at-risk teens. But does this mean Henry and Grace’s efforts are fruitless if they cannot accomplish them as human-beings? Two things come to mind: not everyone is Jesus Christ and part of being self-aware means realizing your own limitations as a human-being. What if Grace did kill someone? What if Henry did starve himself of relationships and of his sanity? You can’t do it all alone, can you? And maybe what these films are trying to say on a more critical level is that there must be an effort to care about our own needs as well as others. Our own needs to expand perspective and come to terms with those things that have plagued us for so long; our own demons. How can you teach one to conquer a demon you haven’t yet conquered?

There is a beautiful line by Henry in the film: “So to defend ourselves, and fight against assimilating this dullness into our thought processes, we must learn to read. To stimulate our own imagination, to cultivate our own consciousness, our own belief systems. We all need skills to defend, to preserve, our own minds.”

While film has always been important to me, these films have urged me to more directly affect those in need in immediate reality. I think in that sense, I am living proof that art can raise self-awareness and move someone to considering making a difference, in themselves, as well as society. That, in itself, is a logical reason for art’s existence.