Short Term 12 (2013)

15 Oct

Short Term 12 Brie Larson and Keith Stanfield

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

OK, so you have this setup: foster care, the people involved, emotional attachments proceed. Describing the independent film “Short Term 12” like that would make it sound like a overly sappy and sentimental melodrama with enough manipulation to make you puke when you realize you’re not crying (and not going to either). But “Short Term 12” is a lot better than that. It’s a well-written, deeply effective film that takes a close, realistic look at the lives of those who live in a children’s group home and those who work there as caretakers. These are complicated people that are brought to life with good writing and convincing acting.

“Short Term 12” is mostly centered around the character of Grace, who works as a caretaker at a foster-care “short term” institution, acting as a surrogate big-sister to troubled kids who live there. She’s played in a star-making performance by Brie Larson. Larson has been good in supporting roles before (and has appeared in two indie films recently: “The Spectacular Now” and “Don Jon”); in this leading role, she owns it with her best work that is sure to gain a lot of attention. She delivers an honest, successful portrayal of a person who seems to have everything under control on the outside and is insecure and unsure on the inside. And that’s what Grace is like—she seems to have it together when she’s around people at work and has a no-nonsense personality to assist, but life outside work is a confusing mess as things in her life spiral out of control in ways she didn’t expect.

“Short Term 12” is an intriguing character-study in that we know very little about Grace to begin with, and then events from her past are revealed as the story continues. Events happen and we know more about her through these events, in the way she responds to them. We understand why she behaves certain ways (and at one point, it’s revealed that she may actually be mentally unstable) and grow more and more interested in her story as it’s revealed in small doses, not with overwrought exposition but with realistic talk. Credit for that not only goes to Larson, but also to writer/director Destin Cretton, who remade (and expanded) this feature film from his earlier short film in 2008. And I should also give credit for the crafting of the film too. It’s done in handheld camera footage, which I usually can’t stand in films anymore, but it works here because it gives the film a more “you-are-there” feel. This way, we feel like we know these people and are with them throughout the film, like any great character-driven film.

And something else “Short Term 12” gets right is that it’s one of the truest portrayals of troubled teenagers you’ll ever come across. Their issues are as serious as the issues the caretakers are going through—and while we’re on that subject, it’s also interesting in how a standoffish newcomer to the home, Jayden (well-played by Kaitlyn Dever), has problems that mirror that of Grace’s. That gives Grace all the more reason to ultimately break down as well as try to help her. It gives a very interesting dynamic in that sense.

I don’t want to make “Short Term 12” sound entirely depressing, because it does have its comic-relief moments, such as the amiable stories that Grace’s lover/co-worker Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) loves to tell to his co-workers, including newcomer therapist Nate (Rami Malek). And the friendship that the workers share is convincing and easygoing. Other amusing moments come from the kids, particularly wisecracking Luis (Kevin Hernandez) and odd Sammy (Alex Calloway). Sometimes, you need to laugh or hassle your fellow “inmates” and supervisors in order to further go along the road to recovery, given these kids’ pasts.

Even when there are some rough character choices in the final act, and Grace does perform a most extreme action that really makes you question her mental state, “Short Term 12” finds a way to recover. This is a film that I will not forget anytime soon. The performances are on-target, the script is solid, the execution is well-handled, and hopefully, this will turn out to be a deserving career breakthrough for Brie Larson, for her brilliant performance. I look forward to seeing her in more leading roles. And I also look forward to Destin Cretton’s next film.

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