Rated R. Our ratings: V -2; L -4; S/N -6. Running time: 1 hour 36 min.
He heals the broken-hearted,
and binds up their wounds.
He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his woundsyou have been healed.
1 Peter 2.24
Writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton has taken his 22-minute short, shown at Sundance in 2008, and expanded it into one of the best feature films of the year. He reportedly spent two years after college working in a mental treatment facility, and the many details of the movie show this. This film, centered on disturbed teenagers and their young caregivers, is light years away from the caricatures that populate One Flew Over the Cuckoo Nest. Its small production budget is probably less than the advertising budget for the average summer blockbuster, so you might not have heard of this film: before going into details, I want to urge you right away to seek it out. It is certain to be on Visual Parables’ Top Ten list for the year.
The title comes from the name of the mental facility where the disturbed teenagers are expected to stay for just 12 months, the hope being that most will be taken in by foster parents or returned to their own families. It begins with line staff supervisor Grace (Brie Larson) and fellow staffer Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) talking with new volunteer Nate (Rami Malek) about what to expect. Mason is in the midst of telling a funny self-deprecating story when Sammy (Alex Calloway), a skinny kid always dressed in pajama bottoms and playing with dolls, runs out of the building. All three set out in chase, knowing that if Sammy reaches the street, they cannot restrain him. They succeed in catching up with him, and when the would-be runaway is returned to his room, Mason finishes his story. That he is able to share a tale that puts himself in a very unflattering light tells us a lot about this compassionate caregiver.
Grace is well named, she, as well as Mason, seeing her job as a calling—people of faith would call it a “ministry.” She is in her mid to late twenties with no degree in counseling, but her natural gifts, coupled with her own history of abuse, make her a far better counselor than her boss Jack (Frantz Turner), as we see in a later sequence. She and Mason work well together, and they also live together in an apartment they keep secret—though later they learn that the patients all are aware of their relationship.
When 15 year-old Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) arrives, she resists the staff and residents’ attempts to be friendly, telling them that she doesn’t want to talk with anyone because her father will soon have her out, and so she does not want to waste her time on short relationships. Grace sees much of herself in the new arrival, including her compulsive cutting of herself. Grace herself is an example of what writer Henri Nouwen called a “wounded healer.” She is pregnant with an unwanted child, and she receives a phone call informing her that the father who was sent to prison on the basis of her testimony about his abusing her will soon be out on parole. When she informs Mason of her condition, he wants her to open up and talk, but she says she cannot. This becomes a growing issue that threatens their relationship.
When Jayden manages to get away from the residence, Grace cannot restrain her to bring her back, so she insists on following her. Despite Jayden’s protests, Grace continues to stay with her. Through this act and a shared interest in drawing, the two grow closer together. Especially telling is the scene in which the girl shows Grace her story of the octopus and the shark, an indirect way of revealing the deep trouble she is in with her father. When Grace learns that Jayden has been released to spend time with her father, Grace pours out her fears for the girl to Jack, but he thinks she is reading too much into the situation and refuses to go and get the girl. Grace becomes so enraged that she smashes Jack’s favorite table lamp and decides upon a course that could be dangerous.
Woven into Grace and Jayden’s stories are episodes involving several of the other patients, such as the already mentioned Sammy, who continually tries to run away and then is devastated when his doll is stolen; and there’s Luis (Kevin Hernandez), who loves pulling off pranks; and African American Marcus (Keith Stanfield). The latter, at 18, is being prepared to leave, but is very much afraid that he cannot make it outside. He writes angry rap lyrics and often resists attempts to help him—and yet he becomes a fine conveyor of grace when Jayden, on her birthday waits fruitlessly for several hours for her father to come and pick her up. No telling what the despairing girl might have done if it weren’t for Marcus. The scene is a real throat-lumping one. There is another memorable episode when the foster parents who had taken Mason in treat everyone to a party, and Mason pays tribute to them—but for their loving acceptance, he says, he would not be here today.
There are so many heart-felt scenes in the film, ones that could have been mawkish or syrupy in the hands of a less gifted director/writer, as well as an incredibly good cast. Some of the characters are a hair’s breadth from spinning out of control. Grace herself breaks Mason’s heart when she remains silent to his plea to open up and share with him her pain and fears. She is like the apostle Paul in his Letter to the Romans in that she knows what she should do, but cannot do it.
Not since the moving sequences between therapist and teenaged patient in Ordinary People have I seen such an honest and frank approach to the mentally and emotionally disturbed—nor since the Spitfire Grill such a well-rounded portrait of a wounded healer. Grace is a natural counselor able to discern and compassionately reach out to those who are wounded. Were she religious, she might well become a compassionate minister. But in the third act of the film, it is she who must be healed, and how the process begins fills the viewer with renewed hope and a gladness that despite “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” life is good and full of promise for her, and possibly for some of the youth as well. This is a good visual parable revealing the social aspect of healing and that grace can emanate from unexpected sources.
The full version with 9 discussion questions will be in the November issue of the journal Visual Parables.