Schools and Their Role in Protecting Young People at Risk

I stumbled across the following statistics recently, which were compiled by Child Trends and published in Issue 109 (September/October 2013) of Adbusters magazine. These figures represent an average class of 100 graduating high school students in the United States:

• 71 have been physically assaulted
• 39 have been bullied
• 64 have had sexual intercourse
• 28 have been sexually victimized
• 21 have had a sexually transmitted infection
• 29 have suffered serious symptoms of depression
• 34 are overweight or obese
• 22 live in significant poverty
• 16 have carried a weapon in the past year
• 14 have contemplated suicide and 6 have carried out an attempt
• 10 have been raped

Whilst these statistics relate specifically to American high school students, it is still pretty scary. Furthermore, it outlines the difficulties facing schools and educators in trying to educate young people amidst the myriad social ailments and personal hardships with which they are trying to cope, often with few, if any, support networks. It would certainly be interesting to view similar statistics from within Australian schools and I would be surprised if there was much difference. Irrespective of the outcome of any such information gathering, I am quite certain that very few Australian schools are willing to address, or even acknowledge, these issues, let alone have mechanisms in place to identify and support young people.

It would be great to think that schools were responsible for more than just delivering facts and information to students. Imagine if schools actually developed a more holistic and humanistic approach that went beyond ‘education’ and developed strategies and services that provided students with information and support services. After all, the curriculum isn’t really a priority to somebody whose life is spiralling out of control, so the more we can do to balance educational outcomes and expectations with the need to ensure the safety and wellbeing of students – in or outside of the school environment – the better. When subjects like depression and suicide are taboo, when sex education is simplistic at best or simply non-existent, when bullying is rife, when sport and physical activity is being wound back and when those living in poverty are being denied access to resources and facilities because they are unable to meet the increasing costs of the so-called free public education, it would not be surprising to discover that the youth experience in Australia is very similar to the picture painted by the above figures.

Even if the figures from an Australian perspective were only half as bad as these, how can we live with ourselves? Teachers and school administrators are often best placed to have a positive influence over young people experiencing social crisis or hardship. Furthermore, schools are best placed to provide a range of support services to students, but fail to do so. Heck, some schools don’t even permit the students on the grounds more than a few minutes before the start of the school day and are quick to usher them out again as soon as the bell goes at 3:00pm. For many young people, school is their only respite from the hardships they are enduring in other aspects of their life. Schools should never be the cause of any of the experiences listed above, either directly through lack of education/action about bullying (for example), or indirectly through a failure to provide effective education and/or access to information in these areas. One teacher once told me that our role is ‘to keep them occupied between 9:00 and 3:00 and then they’re not our problem’ and I dare say that is an attitude shared, unfortunately, by many teachers. Although, of course, it would be unfair to suggest that this attitude is representative of all educators. I do think it is fair to say though that schools, by and large, don’t seem to take much interest in, or responsibility for, the welfare and well-being of students beyond the most basic of programs and support services that sound good in the prospectus but actually achieve very little.

For some students, just the opportunity to hang out in a library or computer lab or sports hall before and/or after school as an alternative to going home, may just be the thing that prevents them succumbing to harm of some kind. I have had many instances where students have asked if they can stay in the classroom after school to do work because they can’t face going home. The reasons for this are varied, such as: there is nowhere quiet to study at home or no computer available, they don’t want to be home alone, there is a fear of what/who is waiting for them at home or myriad other possibilities. For whatever reason, there is an expectation that teachers will distance themselves from students and take no interest in their social circumstances, which seems ridiculous to me. Given that many schools don’t even have so much as a full-time Guidance Officer on staff, let alone counsellors or psychologists or other professionals who might actually be able to assist students in crisis, why not draw upon the personal experiences of teaching staff who are, after all, supposed to be committed to helping their students. It seems strange to me that teachers who, in some cases, may be best placed to offer support, guidance or advice to students, are prevented from doing so. I mean, a teacher who has endured circumstances or experiences akin to those being experienced by a student might be better placed to serve as an outlet of support than a so-called expert whose only understanding of, or experience with, such an issue/circumstance is purely theoretical, particularly given that the teacher has perhaps already developed a rapport with a student through classroom interactions. That is not to say a teacher will be a suitable outlet of support in all potential scenarios, nor is it to suggest that schools shouldn’t be working very closely with health, medical and social service specialists and service providers to ensure that young people are getting access to the treatment, services and support they require. However, there is no denying that there would certainly be plenty of situations where somebody a student trusts – such as a teacher or other education professional – can draw on their own experiences to proffer advice/assistance and it would be good to think that such interactions would not be deemed inappropriate or unacceptable by bureaucrats who are no doubt well intentioned but completely removed from the reality of the perils facing so many young people.

Given that students in the state school system often have little choice what school they attend due to catchments and the like, it should be an expectation that their physical and psychological wellbeing will not be compromised simply because of the school they are required to attend. I mean, how many schools have facilities to accommodate teenage mothers and their babies? How many schools engage in meaningful dialogue and action about issues such as bullying (and accompanying attitudes such as racism and homophobia), depression/suicide, sex and sexuality or health and nutrition. How many schools offer genuine support to students and their families living in poverty? Of course schools should call upon and work with service providers across all areas of social support and welfare to get the best outcome for students and young people, but the reality is that, given the amount of time spent at school by young people, schools are often going to be on the frontline in the battle to protect them from the stresses, hardships and emotional turmoil that can cause irreparable harm to their educational outcomes. If our job is to secure the best possible outcomes for our students, then we cannot ignore our responsibilities to work with the young people in our classrooms in whatever ways we can to make sure they are able to manage those aspects of their life that serve as potential barriers to success.

Now, no doubt there are many who will declare that these are not the responsibility of schools and, in a perfect world, they would be correct. Student health and wellbeing should be the domain of parents and guardians. Well unfortunately, in far too many cases, parents abdicate their responsibilities in this regard and it is often at school where young people get their only access to responsible and caring adults. Moreover, school is often the only place where young people get access to diversity of opinion and an understanding of alternative points of view and the impact of particular actions on others and the world around them more broadly. It is not good enough to hope that parents will take their responsibilities seriously. There is too much at stake for schools to simply herd students into classrooms, throw information at them and then bundle them off home again without taking any interest in the broader context of their lives that will ultimately have such a significant impact on their educational outcomes and the rest of their lives.

Tracks

In 1975, 25-year-old Robyn Davidson arrived in Alice Springs with a few dollars, a suitcase, her dog Diggity and a plan to trek from the central Australian city to the Indian Ocean, some 3000 kilometres west. The determined Davidson spent two years preparing for her trip, scraping together money and learning to train the camels that would accompany her. In March 1977 – with four camels and Diggity in tow – Davidson set out on an epic journey through some of Australia’s most inhospitable desert country. Battling searing temperatures, altercations with wildlife, a lack of water and various other setbacks along the way, Davidson persevered and ultimately reached her destination after nine months of physical and psychological anguish. Davidson documented her journey in the best-selling book Tracks, which has subsequently been adapted into a film of the same name in which Mia Wasikowska embodies the persona of this courageous, single-minded woman who simply refuses to quit.

Directed by John Curran (Praise, We Don’t Live Here Anymore, The Painted Veil), Tracks is perhaps the ultimate road movie. The two years spent in Alice Springs is covered in fairly quick time – necessarily so given the sheer magnitude of the journey to follow – but we do develop a clear understanding of the resistance Davidson encountered in garnering support for her trip. Having been ripped off and dismissed by many, Davidson remains unwavering in her desire to undertake the trek and ultimately, and somewhat begrudgingly, has to accept a sponsorship from National Geographic magazine which stipulates that a photographer is to accompany her for parts of the journey. Needless to say, Davidson is less than impressed but ultimately has no choice but to accept, a decision that subsequently proves critical in her survival. Adam Driver (Frances Ha, Lincoln) plays photographer Rick Smolan, an initially annoying presence whose patience and persistence eventually wins over Davidson and the audience.

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Once the journey begins, Wasikowska really shines as a woman whose dogged determination knows no bounds. With limited dialogue in so many of the scenes, Curran and Wasikowska do an excellent job of revealing character through action, creating a portrait of a person determined to defy those who told her she couldn’t, or shouldn’t, undertake such an expedition. Not only was Davidson out to challenge what was expected of a young woman at that time in Australia’s history, but she was also out to prove that “an ordinary person is capable of anything.” Smolan’s visits bring the only respite from the isolation of her undertaking and eventually Davidson softens in her attitude towards him. At one point, Davidson is faced with a 160 mile detour (eight days travelling time) to avoid crossing sacred Aboriginal lands. However, such a diversion proves unnecessary when she gains the trust of respected elder Mr Eddie (a terrific Roly Mintuma) who accompanies her through the region and imparts wisdom aplenty along the way, reminiscent of David Gulpilil and Jenny Agutter in Nicholas Roeg’s 1971 classic Walkabout.

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The narrative is punctuated by flashbacks of a childhood shattered by the suicide death of Davidson’s mother, which seems to have been the catalyst for her withdrawal from society. The episodic progression of the trip is broken up by encounters with the few people living, somewhat incredulously, in this most barren of landscapes. Whilst Curran utilises the typical conventions of the genre – such as maps and montages – to track Davidson’s progress, he is certainly in no hurry and ensures that the sheer magnitude of her undertaking is articulated through vivid widescreen imagery courtesy of cinematographer Mandy Walker, who also lensed Australia. Having already demonstrated her considerable acting chops in a range of diverse roles (Alice in Wonderland, The Kids are Alright, Lawless, Stoker) this is a breakthrough moment for Wasikowska, on whose shoulders this film very firmly rests. She handles the pressure with aplomb and articulates the physical and emotional transformation of the character with subtlety and sincerity.

Tracks is a film that will no doubt confound those for whom the idea of watching somebody traipsing through the Australian outback does not appeal. However, the sheer audacity of Davidson’s undertaking, the stunning Australian scenery, Wasikowska’s performance as the intrepid adventurer and the obligatory happy ending make for an engaging against-the-odds drama that will hopefully find an audience.

Filth

Bruce Robertson is not a well man. Of that much we are certain. Played by James McAvoy resplendent with perpetually bloodshot eyes and a ginger beard, Robertson is the central character in the film adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s Filth. Robertson is a morally compromised Scottish detective whose life and career are spiralling out of control. With the exception of Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting, previous attempts to adapt Welsh’s works have proven less than successful and this effort also falls a long way short of Boyle’s benchmark. Directed by Jon S.Baird, who also wrote the screenplay, Filth has caused some outrage about some of the more grotesque moments, but for me the biggest failing is the fact that the film doesn’t go far enough. It desperately wants to be seen as something more outrageous than it really is.

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Whilst it can never be expected that any film will be the same as the book on which it is based, there is no doubt that our familiarity with the original story and our relationship with it will shape how we embrace any subsequent film version. This was certainly the case for me in this instance. I read Filth several years ago and I remember thinking at the time that the book could never been made into a film without significant changes and/or omissions for reasons other than brevity or narrative clarity. I just knew that the behaviour of the characters and the nature of the sex and violence would make it a difficult sell as a film. It is not surprising therefore that Filth, much like other films drawn from books inhabited by extreme characters such as American Psycho, could never really be expected to bear much resemblance to the novel from whence they came.

McAvoy’s Robertson is on the brink of physical and mental collapse. Tormented by hallucinations, guilt over the death of his younger brother and the breakdown of his marriage, Robertson relies on sex, alcohol and drugs to ease the pain, all the while gunning for a promotion to Detective Inspector. The film opens with the murder of a Japanese student and, whilst Robertson’s investigation into the crime is at the core of the narrative, the story veers off into so many dark corners of Robertson’s addled existence that the case itself is largely forgotten. You see, Robertson hates everybody, himself included, and much of the film focusses on his efforts to damage as many people as he can, including Bladesey (Eddie Marsan), the one person who has extended Robertson any kind of friendship. As Robertson’s hedonistic downward spiral gathers momentum, the film itself becomes more and more ambiguous and bogged down by unnecessary diversions, such as Jim Broadbent’s ridiculous turn as the bizarre Doctor Rossi and the narration from wife Carole (Shauna MacDonald).

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Almost all of the women in this film get very short shrift, with only Imogen Poots as Detective Drummond presenting as anything more than a conduit for Robertson’s perversions. So mired in self-loathing is Robertson that he can’t even bring himself to accept the gratitude and potential companionship of Mary (Downton Abbey’s Joanne Froggatt), a woman who has witnessed the good buried behind the crumbling exterior of his mind and body. Despite the best efforts of Baird and a suitably manic performance from McAvoy, it just doesn’t work as well as it should. Even those moments designed to shock the most – such as Robertson blackmailing an underage girl into performing oral sex or his penchant for erotic asphyxiation – are ultimately unconvincing in their efforts to construct Robertson as beyond redemption.

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It seems to me that the filmmakers have tried to have it both ways. On one hand, Baird has constructed Robertson as a grotesque character seemingly devoid of charm or any sense of morality, only to filter his behaviour via a back story that engenders some sympathy and a cast of fellow police officers who actually seem much more pathetic, albeit in less hedonistic or self-destructive ways. For those unfamiliar with the book, this film might be a satisfying enough exploration of the darker side of human nature, but I was certainly expecting something that pushed the envelope even further. A risk, it seems, that nobody was prepared to take, which is what ultimately renders Filth as a somewhat underwhelming experience.

Blue is the Warmest Colour

Few movies have arrived in Australian cinemas amidst as much controversy and commentary as Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Colour. The film has not been out of the headlines since it was awarded the Palme d’Or at Cannes in May, with the Tunisian director coming under attack from his two lead actresses – Lea Seydoux and Adele Exarchopoulos – and Julie Maroh, the author of the book on which the film is based. Most of the criticism from the various parties revolves around the sex scenes in the film and, whilst Exarchopoulos has since recanted somewhat in her criticism of Kechiche, there is no doubt that the public feuding has only served to generate an awareness and interest in the film that may not have otherwise been achieved. However, putting aside the tit-for-tat spats from the various parties, the film needs to be evaluated on his merits as a piece of cinematic art and, on that level, it is a terrific success.

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The unheralded Exarchopoulos plays Adèle, a shy, studious young woman who starts as a high school student and is working as a teacher when the film ends. In the opening segment, Adele is tentative in her social interactions but finds herself under constant pressure from her friends to conform to their expectations, which primarily means procuring a boyfriend. A brief relationship with a popular boy ensues but soon fizzles out as Adele finds herself drawn to cool, blue-haired 20-something artist Emma (Seydoux), who she initially glimpses on the street and later seeks out in a gay nightclub. The romantic spark between them is electric and the two soon become inseparable. However, as Emma’s career starts to blossom, Adele finds herself increasingly on the margins of Emma’s broadening social circle. Despite being quite intelligent, Adele struggles with the confidence she needs to flourish in this environment and, eventually starts to spread her wings, a decision that ultimately leads to the end of the relationship in a particularly powerful scene that showcases the talents of both actresses.

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Whilst the sex scenes have caused much conversation and consternation, I’m not really sure what all the fuss is about. Are they exploitative? No. Are they inauthentic? No. In fact, I would suggest they seem very realistic in the context of two young people discovering each other in that early stage of a relationship where passion and lust are still very much at the forefront of their attraction to each other. Kechiche has been accused of lingering on these scenes, but the reality is that he lingers on everything in this film. Whether it is scenes in the classroom, family dinners or even Adele sleeping, Kechiche takes his time with each shot and, furthermore, shoots almost the entire film in close-up. At least in this instance, the sex is very much the result of two people in love without an agenda, whereas in so much Hollywood fare, sex is usually presented as either; an act of spite/vengeance, a transaction of some kind, a convenient source of narrative conflict, a demonstration of the relationships of power and/or unwelcome by at least one participant. In this instance, Kechiche shies away from such conventions and uses the sex scenes purely as an insight into the relationship. Whilst I have no way of knowing whether Kechiche exploited the girls during filming – it is claimed that it took up to 10 days to shoot these scenes – I do know that the end result is certainly not deserving of the outcry that has come from some quarters.

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Once you adapt to the languid pace and the abundant close-ups – which do take some getting used to – and settle in for the long haul of the three hour running time, there is so much to enjoy. There is a real sense of authenticity in most of the characters, whether they be teachers, friends or the various sets of parents. In fact, both sets of parents are presented in a way that contrasts strongly against the type of histrionics we might ordinarily see in a more mainstream production. Adele’s parents are not made aware of the nature of her relationship with Emma – they assume the two girls are just friends – but this is not milked for laughs or melodrama, which is great to see. There are many scenes in which not much happens, but it is this sense of realism (real life is quite slow at times) that draws you in.

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Without doubt, it is the performances the make Blue is the Warmest Colour something special. Exarchopoulos and Seydoux (Farewell My Queen, Sister) are brave and outstanding in their depictions of these two young women in love. Exarchopoulos is in almost every scene and it is to her great credit that she takes on this responsibility with consummate skill. Seydoux is also fabulous as an artist who ultimately loses sight of what (who) is important to her. He may not have ingratiated himself with too many people along the way, but Kechiche has drawn remarkable performances from two talented young actresses to produce a film of exceptional quality.

Only Lovers Left Alive

If anybody can be trusted to make vampires cool again in the wake of the insipid Twilight series, indie veteran Jim Jarmusch is just the man. Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive is a languid, cultured and very amusing tale of centuries-old vampires that oozes style and sophistication. Tom Hiddleston (Thor, War Horse) and Tilda Swinton (Moonrise Kingdom, Chronicles of Narnia) are perfectly cast as Adam and Eve, a sexy, sallow double act of intelligent, sophisticated vampires whose love affair has spanned centuries. Whilst largely embracing the traditions of the vampire myth – Adam and Eve sleep during the day and live their lives exclusively after dark – this is very much a contemporary tale as our protagonists navigate the perils of their 21st-century existence, such as securing access to blood that is not contaminated in some way by the indulgences of the human population.

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Adam is a musician with a cult following whose reclusiveness seems as much a part of his popularity as his music. He lives in a cluttered house in Detroit amongst the decaying ruins of this once great industrial city, the landscape a metaphor for Adam’s state of mind that has him contemplating suicide. He surrounds himself with musical instruments and other artefacts procured by his only friend Ian (Anton Yelchin). Eve, meanwhile, resides in Morocco and the two communicate primarily via webcam. Despite the geographic distance between them, they are clearly very much in love and Eve, sensing Adam’s despondency, travels to Detroit to be with him. The logistical intricacies of organising nighttime-only travel night brings an interesting perspective to the plight of the vampire that is generally overlooked.

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Together again, Adam and Eve loll about the house and reminisce about the days of yore, Eve declaring that “Shelly, Byron, and those French assholes I used to hang around with” are responsible for the modern-day stigma against vampires. Adam and Eve represent the people and events of the past about which today’s youth are completely oblivious. These two have witnessed firsthand the deterioration of culture and, for Tom at least, there seems little hope for the future, referring to humans as ‘zombies’. Eve is somewhat less pessimistic and is genuinely excited when Adam shows her the house in which Jack White grew up during one of their late night drives around Detroit. Furthermore, when they visit a bar to watch a band perform, Eve is impressed by the female singer declaring that ‘she’s going to be big star’, to which Tom cynically responds “I hope not, she’s too good for that.”

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The unwelcome arrival of Eve’s sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) lightens the mood somewhat as her greedy, irresponsible, self-centred behaviour epitomises everything that Tom sees as being wrong with the world. Wasikowska is great fun as Ava, a larger-than-life party girl who refuses to buy into Adam’s sombre shtick. Of course, Ava ultimately goes too far and it is Adam and Eve who are forced to clean up the mess and, as a result, flee Detroit for Tangiers. The only other characters of any significance are Eve’s dear friend, fellow vampire and Elizabethan poet Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt) and the jittery, jumpy Doctor Watson (Geoffrey Wright), who provides Adam with regular stocks of blood from hospital supplies.

It must be said that Only Lovers Left Alive tracks at a lethargic pace that some audiences might find frustrating. However, those familiar with Jarmusch’s work – Broken Flowers, Dead Man, The Limits of Control – will know what to expect and should be pleased enough with what they see. Set entirely at night, the photography is fabulous and there is certainly fun to be had. Yes, the film is somewhat cynical in its examination of contemporary society, but we are supposed to be seeing the world through the eyes of those who have lived through and influenced so many great moments in history. This is a meandering but refreshing take on vampires that has much in common with Tony Scott’s The Hunger (1983) and proves that a vampire romance in the right hands can, in fact, be something worth seeing.

Storm Sinks Fiesta Finale

A storm brought a premature end to the Valley Fiesta last night, curtailing proceedings before headline act Architecture in Helsinki could take to the main stage. A big crowd was on hand in readiness for the performance when heavy rain swept across Fortitude Valley and left organisers with little choice but to abandon the show. Prior to the rain, the likes of Art of Sleeping, Jeremy Neale and Gold Fields had performed, with photos from the event available here.

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The festivities continue today from 2:00pm to 7:00pm with events on the Valley and Chinatown mall stages. The Queensland Music Award Winners Showcase on the Valley Mall Stage will feature Cub Sport, who will have a plaque laid on the Valley Mall walk of fame in their honour. The Chinatown Mall will celebrate Queensland’s LGBTI community with performances from the likes of Paulini and Dan Murphy.

All the public stages of Valley Fiesta are FREE and ALL AGES. For more information about Valley Fiesta, including venue maps and the full line-up of performers, head to the event website or visit them on Facebook.

Short Term 12

If Brie Larson doesn’t find herself among the contenders for the Best Actress Oscar this year, then the Academy needs to take a long hard look at itself. In Short Term 12, Larson delivers a powerhouse performance that draws you in and keeps you mesmerised for the duration of what is, at times, a harrowing story set in a foster care facility. Perhaps best known as Kate on television series The United State of Tara, Larson is a knockout as the compassionate yet damaged leader of the dedicated group of staff who run the centre. Littered with moments of breathtaking honesty in its frank depiction of the extreme experiences that the various inhabitants endure, both inside and outside the facility, this is a film that will tip many into emotional overload. Written and directed by Destin Cretton and based on his own short film of the same name, Short Term 12 is an emotional rollercoaster with moments of mirth amidst the heartache.

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Larson plays Grace, one of a handful of staff at a foster facility that, as the title suggests, is supposed to be a short term placement for children and teenagers for up to 12 months or until they turn 18. However, there are no guarantees and at least one of the children has been there almost three years. Grace and the other staff are not supposed to be counsellors or therapists, they are charged with monitoring the day-to-day activities and ensuring the children (for want of a better word given that some are in their late teens) are safe. The problem is, of course, that the amount of time they spend with the residents ensures that bonds are formed and they become privy to revelations about what these young people have experienced. The students might articulate their experiences in different ways – whether it is Marcus’ rap about his drug dealing mother or Jayden’s short story that serves as an allegory for her relationship with her father – but Brie and her co-workers often find themselves having to deal with the ongoing emotional, psychological and, at times, physical damage that has been inflicted on these young people.

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Grace is in a relationship with co-worker Mason (John Gallagher Jr) and we soon discover that both of them have much in common with the kids they are protecting. Despite dealing with several crises of their own which threaten to splinter the relationship, their commitment to their work never waivers. Battling her own demons while trying to protect those entrusted to her care, Grace begins to unravel and ultimately takes matters into her own hands when one of the children is released into the custody of an abusive parent simply because they can’t bring themselves to talk about what they have endured. Larson articulates Grace and everything she is feeling – anger, sadness, frustration, compassion – with a rawness that is mesmerising and completely devoid of artifice.

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What I really like about this film is the way in which it raises questions about exactly who is best to understand children and young people in crisis. Is it the so-called experts possessing abundant ‘qualifications’ or is it those who have experienced firsthand the hardships endured by those who find themselves in a facility such as this? The film definitely takes aim at the idea of bureaucracy dictating the decision-making process and the implications this can have when decisions are made ‘by the book’ with little effort to understand the reality of the situation and the risks associated with such a rigid approach.

Gallagher is also excellent as Mason, a man who seems almost too good to be true in his unyielding commitment to his job and a woman who struggles to accept that she is worthy of his love. Of the others, Keith Stanfield and Kaitlyn Deaver are incredible as Marcus and Jayden respectively, their performances utterly believable as two people broken by those closest to them. In fact, everything about Short Term 12 is excellent and Cretton has constructed a film that, whilst difficult to watch at times, is an utterly worthwhile experience. Come awards season, it will take one hell of a performance to deny Larson, while Cretton’s screenplay should also be a contender. Of course, it is possible that my own experiences as a young person that enable me to empathise with characters to some extent may have clouded my judgement, but I would like to think that, when I declare this as one of the very best films I have seen for a long time, I am coming at it objectively. Check it out and make up our own mind.