Short Term 12
2013 - 96 minutes
Written and directed by: Destin Cretton
Starring: Brie Larson, John Gallagher Jr., Kaitlyn Dever, Keith Stanfield, Frantz Turner, Kevin Hernandez, Alex Calloway, Melora Walters, Stephanie Beatriz
A columnar row of cypress trees towers over the boxy, pale yellow one-story compound of Short Term 12, a foster care facility for at-risk teens and tweens. Almost always framed on the bottom of the screen, the undeniably institutional building is at once a drab establishment and a place on which to build a solid foundation for a hopeful future. It’s a shame that such a place has to exist, but after spending time with the resilient kids who’ve been dealt a bad lot and those dedicated to helping them, we’re glad that it does.
Writer/director of “Short Term 12” Destin Cretton based the film in part on his personal experiences working at a similar care center and there’s a truth that shines though in the material. In expanding his short film of the same name, Cretton forgoes filling the runtime with forced sentimentality and instead uses fully realized, believable characters and their stories to drive an honest, multi-faceted narrative that is intrinsically melancholy but peppered with optimism and tension-relieving humor.
At the heart of the story is Grace (Brie Larson), once a troubled teen who has matured into a less-troubled twenty-something that puts on a brave face and mentors the kids that cycle through the center. Despite a rather on-the-nose character name, nothing about Grace feels manufactured. Cretton’s sure-handed script reveals her story in measured doses, and though we can guess correctly on pieces, it’s not all about the facts but about how they color her character and reveal her inner struggles. Larson has excelled in supporting roles that include this year’s “The Spectacular Now,” and she shines here in a retrained, yet powerful performance that is extraordinary.
By all initial appearances Grace is content, if not understandably weary, with her life as mentor and overseer by day and serious girlfriend to fellow center supervisor Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) by night. Mason’s an affable guy with a scruffy beard who can connect with kids and his girlfriend with a sense of humor that is just the right level of inappropriate. A couple of conversations early in the film border on being a little too cute, but they tap into the witty resolve needed to remain sane amid the daily reminders that bring the emotions of their backstories to the surface.
Grace’s tenuous balance is tested by the possibility of beginning a family of her own, and also some upheaval at Short Term 12 as one kid readies to leave on his 18th birthday and a new resident moves in. The almost-18-year-old is Marcus (Keith Stanfield), frightened of his prospects outside the gates of the facility he acts out. A deeply personal rap song he pens and performs shows the depth of his experience and the reasons for his scowls of pained intensity. Stanfield’s only two other acting credits are shorts, including Cretton’s, but I suspect he will have many more in the future; his performance is one of a seasoned pro.
The new arrival is Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), a self-harmer who introduces herself to the group by saying in so many words that her dad is getting her out of this place soon so it’s pointless to make friends. A master at connecting with these kids, Grace shows an appreciation for Jayden’s sarcasm and her artistic ability. It quickly becomes apparent that the two may share a similar history that forces Grace to confront her past – and her future – in ways she hasn’t had to before.
Vulnerability and uncertainty are portrayed to perfection by Larson and Cretton; the performer never overplaying and the director’s observant, handheld camera used efficiently without ever shifting focus to the style rather than the substance. There is one action taken by Grace near the end of the film that pushes the barriers of realism, but things get pulled back at the right time and in the right way.
Earning its emotional payoffs, “Short Term 12” doesn’t pull the gut punches, but thankfully the film delivers them without the schmaltz. Just as important are quiet moments surrounding dramatic high points that effectively drive the point home.
Told by Mason, the film is bookended with two stories of kids that have spent time in the facility. Each is performed with a comedic angle, one ending in tragedy the other with promise; just parts of an endless cycle where some of us make it and some of us don’t. Such is the nature of Short Term 12 – the “12” in the title and the name of the facility reminding us that there are countless other stories to be told at Short Terms 1 through 11 and 13 through “x.”
“Short Term 12” is one of the best films of the year so far, earning every moment through genuine depictions of hurt and healing.
© 2013 by Blake Crane