Now out on DVD, the indie drama Short Term 12 is an understated but emotionally charged work of art.
Look into my eyes so you know what it’s like
A life not knowing what a normal life’s like
Once in a while, a film comes along that is so unspeakably moving, so magical, that it hits you right in the heart and buries itself deep. As a high school teacher myself, I admit that I’m an easy mark for “troubled youth” stories, though for every great one (Stand and Deliver, the brutal fourth season of HBO’s The Wire), there are three or four that try too hard and land their beats a little too heavily. Short Term 12 is not one of those. It’s subtle, resonant, and anchored by miraculous lead performance from Brie Larson.
Larson plays Grace, the twenty-something supervisor of Short Term 12, which is meant to just be a way station for the at-risk kids that stay there, waiting for the county to send them to a more permanent home. Most stay about a year, but some have lived there for as long as three. Grace is endlessly kind and compassionate, but her soft features mask a steel spine. She wouldn’t last long in the job if she wasn’t able to lay down the law when she had to. Often, in between room checks and administering meds, Grace — and her boyfriend, Mason (John Gallagher, Jr.) — have to chase down kids when they make a break for it, though very few are legally required to stay at the facility. The room where kids “cool off” has one of those inflatable boxing buddies, and it takes frequent abuse.
In the opening reels, we get to know some of 12’s residents: Marcus, the brooding loner (and gifted lyricist) who is weeks away from turning 18 and having to leave; Luis, the smart-aleck and wannabe athlete; Sammy, the damaged young boy who clings to his dolls and regularly attempts to escape. All of these characters (including the other workers) are refreshingly human. No one is a simple archetype; the dialogue is so natural it’s often painful. And with the arrival of a girl named Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), who hides deep wounds behind cutting sarcasm and violent outbursts, daily life at the facility becomes fraught with tension.
Grace and Mason, who have been in love for three years, have troubled pasts of their own. Both are former foster kids, but Grace has demons locked away that she has never let herself share, even with Mason. And when she finds out that she’s pregnant, she’s tormented about what to do, believing herself incapable of motherhood despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Yet she takes to Jayden almost instantly, and as the two (slowly) bond, they come to realize they have much more in common than what’s on the surface.
Writer-Director Dustin Daniel Cretton spent his first two years out of college working at a group home in San Diego, and eventually turned those experiences into the short film that became the basis for Short Term 12. It claimed both the jury and audience prizes at SXSW, saw an extremely limited release (it only played a few weeks here in San Antonio), and deserves infinitely more attention than it’s received this late in Oscar season. But of course, this is the kind of film that the Academy roundly ignores. It’s too “small,” and Cretton and Larson make it look too effortless, when in fact it’s a brilliant high-wire walk navigating the screenplay’s difficult themes and tone. It never gets too saccharine, and while it is often uncomfortable, the film gets only as dark as it needs to and no darker. Ultimately, it spans oceans. And its message, about the broken people like Grace and Mason who tirelessly work to give to others what life has taken from them, is powerful.
Larson is simply extraordinary, giving an affectless performance that only hints at the turbulent emotions underneath. Grace leaps off the screen, beautiful and sweet but sad; as we peel back the layers, Larson keeps finding new ways to surprise. Gallagher, Jr. is a perfect foil, radiating decency, and together they make one of the most compelling and rootable couples from any film in recent memory. The kids, from the wise-beyond-her-years Dever to the magnetic Keith Stanfield as Marcus (who himself wrote the rap he delivers in perhaps the film’s most memorable scene), are uniformly outstanding. The handheld camerawork is fidgety but it lends a further verisimilitude to what’s on screen; Joel West’s score is melodic and effective. There is no faulting the craft at any moment in the film.
What makes Grace more effective than the therapists and bureaucrats is that she’s lived what these kids are going through. She can be more vulnerable — and command more respect — than anyone with a graduate degree because she can show her scars; she can tell her stories. And story is a powerful thing in this film. Mason spinning tales of his former charges bookends it; Marcus gives his searing testimony in verse; Jayden writes a “children’s book” that becomes an allegory for her own childhood horror. Short Term 12 does so many things so well, but all of its story threads — which each build expertly to their own mini-climaxes and payoffs — are kept in perfect balance, and everything feels earned. That doesn’t mean that everyone gets a happy ending, but it’s honest and organic in a way that so little fiction, particularly of the “inspirational” kind, ever is. An unforgettable film.