In this series Film Experience contributors sound off (individually) on their favorite fringe awards contenders. Here's Matthew Eng on Keith Stanfield from "Short Term 12" (who was recently Spirit nominated)
Chief among the achievements of Destin Cretton’s Short Term 12 is an early, two-minute scene in which Keith Stanfield’s Marcus, a sullen, soft-voiced, 18-year-old intake on the verge of being released from the film’s titular foster care facility, shares a self-penned rap with Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), one of the center’s supervisors. What unfolds remains, still, the single most heartbreaking moment I’ve seen onscreen this year, as Marcus launches into an unforgiving tirade against the abusive mother who raised him, that soon transitions into a harrowing lament about the unwavering, angering pain of being born into a broken life.
Look into my eyes so you know what it’s like
To live a life not knowing what a normal life’s like”
It's unshakable, shattering stuff, further enhanced by the beautifully-felt efforts of Stanfield, who wrote the rap himself and whose striking, breakout turn remains one of the year's most egregiously undersung performances. It’s easy to imagine all the ways in which the “Young Actor Playing a Troubled Youth in a Social Drama”-model could potentially go wrong: sometimes, steadfast commitment to the “troubled” aspect threatens to render the character one-note; other times, it’s as if the performer has chosen to play the shameless summoner of unmitigated audience sympathy, rather than an actual character. Instead of falling into either of these traps, Stanfield commits whole-heartedly to unveiling each and every complicated layer of Marcus without ever seeming bent on becoming something akin to the underdog worth rooting for. Stanfield is brilliant at navigating and detailing the character’s rocky emotional landscape and prickly persona, whether he’s snapping at Rami Malek’s “new guy” Nate over a dim comment about “underprivileged kids,” rushing to hostile extremes with Kevin Rodriguez’s antagonistic Luis, or allowing his lanky frame to buckle under the weight of suppressed emotional anguish during an impromptu haircut. Marcus’ surly toughness, deep-concealed heartache, and quiet introversion may be his foremost traits, but it’s to Stanfield’s credit that we also get to glimpse a softer, breezier, and funnier side of Marcus, as when he playfully converses with his housemates or cheekily exposes two counselors’ semi-secret relationship via rap.
That Cretton ultimately leads Marcus to something of a narrative dead-end is an unfortunate outcome, albeit one that in no way diminishes the impact of Stanfield’s concentrated and compelling work throughout Short Term 12. He fully and frequently grounds the movie, rooting it in remarkable truthfulness and bold emotionality, helping us locate the beautiful, gently-beating heart that sits firmly at its center.