You always believe Brie Larson. The 23-year-old actress has done everything from Disney Channel sitcoms to studio blockbusters to micro-budget indies, but no matter what the role, no matter how large or how small, she seems utterly incapable of a false note. Attendees of this year’s South by Southwest Film Festival will have plenty of opportunities to marvel at her gifts; in one of those occasional festival collisions of timing and smart choices, Larson appears in three SXSW movies: she plays supporting roles in Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Don Jon’s Addiction and James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now (both of which played to positive notices at Sundance) and takes the lead — her first — in Destin Cretton’s subtle and powerful Short Term 12. Oh, and she also co-wrote and co-directed Weighting, which is playing in the shorts competition.
None of these sound like the kind of choices you make when you’re following up a $100 million-plus grossing studio action/comedy, but that’s exactly the path Larson took. At last year’s SXSW, she appeared in a film of a very different sort: 21 Jump Street, where she played Molly the ingénue, romantic interest to Jonah Hill’s Schmidt. She’d done studio films before (most memorably, she’s Envy Adams in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), and she liked this one because, she says, it offered “the very rare opportunity for an action film to be incredibly funny, have a lot of heart, and have a female lead where her whole point wasn’t that she looked good in shorts.”
She says she didn’t choose to go small after that big movie, but the more she talks, the more deliberate the pattern sounds. “I love filmmaking. I love movies,” she says, and she says it like she means it. “But I love them because I relate to certain people and stories — and I feel like they cast a light on this otherwise very bizarre life that we live, that I don’t really understand, at all. I think that movies are an incredible way to get questions and sometimes answers across for other people… And then there is a way that movies manipulate an audience to feel or do a certain thing. And I feel like especially big studio movies, they are trying to recoup a very big budget, and it feels manipulative to me. And I can’t do that. I won’t feel okay with myself doing that.”
If she’s going for small but personal, Short Term 12 was a wise choice. Writer/director Destin Cretton (I Am Not a Hipster) sets his story in a foster care ward, similar to a facility where he himself worked about a decade ago. “It was a very heavy, slightly traumatic, but also extremely life-changing and uplifting experience,” he says. “The emotional ride of this movie kind of takes you through all the emotions I experienced over the course of two years there.” As a result, it feels like a film written from the inside out, well versed in not only the logistics and lingo, but the atmospheric intensity — it feels like anyone could lose their grip at any time, including the staff. Heading that crew is Larson as Grace, who finds the heartbeat of her initially unreadable character, and guides her through Cretton’s narrative with dexterity and vulnerability.
We talk about the film in depth, but I can’t resist asking Larson about the Criterion list. She laughs as soon as I bring it up. Last year, as many a filmmaker and actor have done, Larson did a list of her ten favorite films in the Criterion Collection for their website. Her eclectic taste and knowledge of the topic (on I Am Curious — Yellow: “Lena Nyman is fearless and riveting in this film, along with its companion, I Am Curious: Blue. I feel a little silly preferring one to the other, but I do enjoy this side of the story more”) immediately endeared her to movie geeks as one of their own. “I graduated at 15,” she explains, “and after that, I just watched movies all day. That was all I wanted to do, that’s it. That was when On Demand just started, when I was 15 or 16, and it was the best thing ever. I could just sit there and watch anything, and so I just started watching these films, and I was finding that I was really taken with foreign films, I always found it to be so unique and so beautiful. And I just became more involved in that.”
She doesn’t find her cinephilic tendencies all that strange. “If I wanna be an actor, if I wanna be a filmmaker, you’ve got to know what you’re talking about.” It’s a notion that shouldn’t be that revolutionary, of course. But for now, it’s one more thing that separates Brie Larson from most of her contemporaries.
Short Term 12 and Weighting premiere Sunday morning at SXSW. Don Jon’s Addiction and The Spectacular Now screen Monday evening.