MEEK AT THE MOVIES —- Don Jon (3 stars)

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^ the lady killer and his ‘eleven” — Joseph Gordon-Leavitt courts Scarlett Johansen in “Don Jon”

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So you’re a lady killer and you’ve got abs and a workout routine that challenge The Situation (not to mention a bit of his Jersey gym rat accent too), so why live the life of a chronic masturbator when you can have any babe in the house? A good question and pretty much the rub of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s plucky rom-com, where he not only tackles the role of the buff Jersey boy of the title but also makes his feature debut as both writer and director.

The film’s intrepid protagonist is so tagged Don Jon (a play on his first name, Jon coupled with that of the notorious lover, Don Juan) by his boyz because he always scores, though in private his ideal sex partner is ten minutes of internet porn and a tissue. Even after landing a nine (on a ten scale), it’s not untypical for Jon to slip out of bed as the conquest du jour snoozes and fire up the laptop for a quick porno boosted topping off.

Sex addict, porn addict? “Don Jon” is not so concerned with that as with Jon’s journey from meandering man-boy into manhood. That transition gets a strong directional pull one night; while out prowling the clubs, Jon lays eyes on the comely Barbara (Scarlett Johansen giving her best and most sex bomb performance to date). She’s an arguable eleven (that ten scale again!) who’s interested in Jon, but won’t let him bed her without a proper and long courtship, and she adroitly knows how to keep him on the hook without letting him in for a night cap. Barbara’s also a life planner and isn’t so thrilled by Jon’s dead end job in an electronics store or his lack of education; so, to even get in the game, Jon’s got to sign up for night classes and take Barbara to meet his parents. These ultimately prove to be loaded and fateful propositions.

Much in the film carries the tang of stereotype and cliché (think “Jersey Shore”), but as it washes over you and takes hold, you realize there’s much more going on than a couple of greasers looking for hit-and-runs. It’s about letting go, finding yourself and connecting; a sly subversive charm that Gordon-Levitt has (through skill or beginner’s luck) infused into the script. Barbara’s gum smacking challenges and demands piquantly put Jon on edge; and, as director, writer and actor, Gordon-Levitt isn’t afraid to deprecate himself or let the other players take center. Jon’s outshone by nearly every other character in the film. Barbara’s a strong cup of tea with her blunt bimbo-esque garble and clingy sweater dresses. Then there’s an overly tanned and toned Tony Dana and Glenne Headly serving up devilish fun (and archetypal puns) as Jon’s working class parents, while Julianne Moore adds a soft, human touch as a troubled older woman in one of Jon’s night classes. Their relationship moves in surprising and affecting ways that educes the reluctant heart in the brash braggadocio.

As Gordon-Levitt builds the film with emotional layers that take root with earnestness, there’s always a jab of good humor in nearly every scene, even if it’s a quick cutaway to Jon’s mounting mass of wadded-up tissue balls in the ubiquitous wired mesh trash can next to the laptop. The compendium of comedy also gets boosted by Jeremy Luke and Rob Brown as Jon’s posse and Greek chorus; Brie Larson adds tartness as Jon’s adolescent sister; she’s a constant reminder of teen angst and boredom as she sits at the dinner table, tacit and unengaged even during bursts of raised voice hysteria, which is common place at Jon’s parents’ house.

In its sweet quirkiness “Don Jon” plays out like a Woody Allen comedy from the other side of the tracks with sharp sophomoric wit stepping in for highbrow satire. It’s an impressive outing for Gordon-Levitt as a nascent filmmaker even if the film doesn’t have a satisfactory “happy ending.”

— Tom Meek / meek at the Movies

MEEK AT THE MOVIES : SHORT TERM 12 ( 3 stars )

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^ Brie Larson as Grace, in Destin Cretton’s “Short Term 12”

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Not so long ago, for about two or three years, I taught creative writing to girls and young women who were wards of the state at the Germaine Lawrence School in Arlington, MA. These women had lived hard lives, drug addiction, rape, multiple pregnancies by the age of sixteen and abuse. A friend of mine who worked at the school and knew that I wrote, had grants and was looking for artists to help the girls shape their stories and find their inner voice. I was apprehensive at first, but agreed to do so and found it one of the most rewarding, eye-opening experiences of my life. I’m certain the girls did more for me than I did for them, but there would be times when a girl would not show up for class, and when I would ask why, I was routinely told it was because they had gone ‘on the run’ and was likely using or worse. There were also times when one would have a fit during our sessions and need to be restrained by the ready staff members in the room. It was violent and shocking to me, but overall, these women were raw, sweet and tough yet highly vulnerable. Fragile fierceness is what I called it.

I tell you all this because, in watching Destin Cretton’s consuming “Short Term 12,” a character study about the youth in a temporary home for troubled teens and the adults who run it, I kept having flash-backs to my time at Germiane Lawrence—deeply emotional, affecting ones. Cretton, who’s a young and promising director, actually worked in such a home; he gets the experience down right, and viscerally too, even if you were never aware such places existed or what they are like.

The sweet barb to the film is that two of the young adults who work at the facility (Brie Larson and John Gallagher Jr.) used to be in such a home themselves. The pair, Mason and Grace, are also in an uneasy relationship; yet on the job, they’re composed and in charge. So much so, that it seems as if much, after being in such a home, must have changed and gone right for them. Then, soon enough, we get glimpses into their not-too-distant pasts–mostly Grace’s–and the reality is not very pretty.

Not only do they have their own demons to contend with, but those of the kids; and they possess insight beyond any graduate degree hanging on a wall. In one telling scene Grace tells the resident therapist that one girl is being/has been abused by her father, because ‘she knows.’ Going by the book the therapist disregards what he considers conjecture and the ramifications are profound.

Much of the film grows like that — small moments laced with tension and consequence. Larson brings a gritty intensity to Grace; we see her full-bodied and real. She’s a survivor and a care giver. Both she and Mason do their jobs clinically, but underneath it all you can feel their emotional turmoil raging. That’s not to say the movie is a downer. There are many small quiet victories, but nothing overwrought, and it’s intriguing to watch how the adolescents at the home play off each other. As for the care givers, for you as viewer the film becomes more than just a job. You start to care for these kids, root for them, hope for a better day for them.

It’s a spellbinding realism that Cretton tapped into. I can’t imagine there’s a human being out there that can’t be moved in some way by “Short Term 12.” If enough people get out and see it, the film, even Cretton and Larson, may be hearing their names called in January.

—- Tom Meek / Here and Sphere