According to the SXSW audience awards announced earlier today, E.L. Katz’s Cheap Thrills was the popular pick of this year’s midnight-movie crop, and it lives up to its title in its nihilistic view of humanity—or at least males—as fundamentally beholden to such urges as money and pride. Through this violent, black-comic tale of the increasingly over-the-top challenges a rich couple, Colin (David Koechner) and Violet (Sara Paxton), offers to two desperate men (Pat Healy’s Craig, a recently laid-off aspiring writer, and Ethan Embry’s Vince, a childhood friend of Craig’s who hasn’t exactly been swimming in dough himself), Katz and screenwriters David Chirchirillo and Trent Haaga appear to believe they’re exposing the dark depths of humanity when pushed to desperate extremes. But after a first act that effectively elicits viewer sympathy for these two soon-to-be-victims of the rich couple’s perverse games, the filmmakers gradually strip away those sympathies. By the time—spoiler alert!—we’re treated to the oh-so-edifying spectacle of our loser protagonists eating a cooked dog (and the challenges get even more grotesque after that), it’s hard to tell where the critique of such cruelty ends and the celebration of it begins. Or rather, more accurately, the whole film is a critique, but one in which we’re put in the above-it-all position of the two Satan figures, looking down at these pitiful specimens and laughing at them.
Is it a mere coincidence that Healy plays a character in Cheap Thrills whose surname is “Daniels,” which is the same name Healy’s nameless character gave himself while impersonating a police officer over the phone in last year’s glorified torture chamber Compliance? Katz’s film, in fact, bears many similarities to Craig Zobel’s—namely in its superior attitude masquerading as cutting commentary on humanity and its episodic structure of increasingly outrageous offenses. Katz, to his credit, is at least more honest about his rotten ambitions than the duplicitous Zobel, not even hiding the fact that he finds something perversely funny about the situations he and his screenwriters imagine for these characters. There’s nothing wrong with a film that tries to boldly scramble our responses the way the filmmakers do; nevertheless, there’s something deeply problematic about a film that seems to lavish so much creative glee in so thoroughly and gruesomely degrading its protagonists, and to no particularly revelatory ends.
Like it or not, though, Cheap Thrills does evince a consistent vision, however sophomoric. Turning to a film like Destin Daniel Cretton’s Short Term 12 after that, however, can’t help but feel like a welcome oasis from such hatefulness. The setup sounds inviting of clichéd “triumph of the human spirit” bathos, set as it is in a foster-care facility populated by troubled children of varying stripes, and centering partly around Grace (Brie Larson), the facility manager who has an uncanny way with these kids, in part because of personal traumas of her own that rear their ugly head again when tough 14-year-old Jayden (Katilyn Dever) enters the picture. And yet, scene by scene, Cretton shows a remarkable ability to sidestep clichés in order to grasp at underlying emotional truths. He also has a talent for economically packing revealing character details into lines of dialogue in ways that somehow don’t come off as mere exposition; for the most part, they feel true to the characters and organic to the given situations. (In Cretton’s hands, one character’s use of the word “underprivileged” in regards to these foster kids and one kid’s offended reaction to that characterization speaks volumes about both characters’ backgrounds and personalities.) And though his screenplay basically follows a standard three-act structure when you break it down, he has a knack for finding unpredictable ways to get to his plot points. His most memorable conceit, in that regard, has Jayden obliquely reveal her abusive past to Grace through a fictional fairy tale she’s cooked up, one that somehow comes off as more emotionally suggestive than heavy-handedly allegorical.
Perhaps the most promising thing about Cretton, though, at least going by this one feature film under his belt, is his generosity of vision and the refreshingly wide emotional range that vision admits. One can grasp this immediately in its opening scene, in which Cretton lulls us with Mason’s (John Gallagher Jr.) amusingly crude anecdote about a situation in which he ends up shitting his pants, only to suddenly pull the rug out of this false sense of security when one of the foster kids suddenly runs out of the facility, sending the four employees scrambling to catch and contain him. Throughout the film, Cretton isn’t afraid of such bold juxtapositions of comedy and tragedy, and the film’s emotional-rollercoaster quality is such that the highs (those precious moments, for instance, where Grace successfully forges a personal connection with a foster child) feel especially ecstatic, and the lows (including one dramatic day in which a whole host of plot and emotional threads converge, with near-debilitating results) pack a more potent tragic punch.
Cretton’s considerable screenwriting acumen picks up the slack from his mostly functional image-making; he basically sticks with a familiar semi-documentary handheld style to tell this story. Nevertheless, he hits upon a truly inspired visual choice with which to end the film. At first, its final scene seems like a simple full-circle replay of the opening scene, complete with the same kid from the opening scene suddenly running out of the foster-care facility. But this time, to contrast with the prosaic way he handles the employees’ chasing after the kid, Cretton captures this particular chase in slow motion, the camera continuing to pull back from the facility even as the employees successfully detain the kid, taking in more of the facility itself and the unassuming settings surrounding it. In one slow-motion backward dolly shot, Cretton manages to evoke a sense of cycles continuing and of life going on. In the otherwise quotidian world of Short Term 12, this visual epiphany carries a near-transcendent power.
The film portion of South by Southwest runs from March 8—March 16.