2013, R, 96 mins.
2013, R, 96 mins.
Brie Larson as Grace / John Gallagher Jr. as Mason / Kaitlyn Dever as Jayden / Melora Walters as Dr. Hendler
Written and directed by Destin Cretton
I’ve seen so many countless examples of the inspirational teacher/student melodrama over the years that, frankly, the genre has become relatively stiff and lifeless for me.
along comes a small little gem like Destin Cretton’s SHORT TERM 12 to
reaffirm my faith in these types of movies.
Based on his previous short film that, in turn, was based on his
own experiences working at foster care facilities for at-risk-teens,
Cretton’s film finds a level of raw grit and verisimilitude that similar
past films lack altogether. That,
and his characters feel lived-in, flawed, and deeply relatable, which only
helps ground the film’s oftentimes-heartbreaking sentiment with a real
TERM 12 is also pretty authentic when it comes to examining and laying out
– warts and all – the frequently troublesome and stressful
relationship between the workers and children of such facilities.
In this film’s case, the home is actually run and overseen by
young adults who are foster children themselves, which gives them a much
more potent and tangible emotional connection to their kids.
The story itself hones in on one particular worker, Grace (played
in a career defining performance by Brie Larson), the leader of a series
of workers that cater to and look after the needs of all of the
“short-term” residents at her children’s group home.
Her partners are Jessica (Stephanie Beatriz) and Nate (Raimi Malek)
and Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), the latter who also happens to be her
lover and confidant. Grace is
one tough cookie, as she runs the gambit daily of dealing with the
constant unpredictable behavior that her kids exhibit.
She finds a level of calmness in doing so that most of us would
properly never be able to muster under the same circumstances.
much like those that she tries to protect and care for at her day job, has
a dark and dreary past that slowly begins to creep back up to the surface
as her work life becomes increasingly erratic and stressful.
Other events take their emotional toil on her as well, like the
distressing news that she’s become pregnant, which forces her to weigh
the options of keeping the baby or not. Then there's also the news
that her once imprisoned father is about to be released.
Perhaps more taxing is the appearance of a new child to the care
home, Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), who seems to exhibit painfully repressed
memories of past traumas that only evokes Grace’s own nightmarish past.
films can either come from a place of mawkish and gag-inducing
sentimentality or manage to relay an undercurrent of truth in showcasing
what the counselors and their kids go through everyday.
SHORT TERM 12 manages to be of the latter variety in the sense that
it comes off as inspiring without feeling artificially manipulative while
not sacrificing an achingly believable and sometimes difficult-to-watch
tone and mood throughout. Cretton
finds a manner of not judging his characters: he puts them on-screen,
often during their most laid-back and perfunctory of moments, and lets the
interplay between the actors sell the honesty of the film.
Throughout much of SHORT TERM 12 I grew less and less conscious of
the fact that I was screening a movie; rather, I felt like a
fly-on-the-wall observer of the events and people on screen, to the point
where it began to come off with a loose, documentary feel.
The free-flowing camerawork by Brett Pawlak alongside Cretton’s
understated direction helps to sell this illusion wonderfully.
superlative performances in the film, alas, are what makes SHORT TERM 12
generate such a deeply felt humanistic pulse of interest.
Brie Larson is one of those actress that has given many small, but
stellar supporting performances in past films, but here she’s finally
allowed free-reign to headline a film and the results are surprisingly
powerful. She makes Grace an
authority figure that’s both inwardly strong, resilient, and fiercely
dedicated to her cause, but ultimately stricken with deep-rooted
uncertainties and insecurities herself.
It’s a complex and multi-faceted character to play, and Larson
effectively deglams herself and never makes us doubt the credibility of
her on-screen presence here. She’s
so crafty and cunning in her work that how she eluded attention during
recent awards circuits is beyond me.
other performances in the film also manage to hit pitch-perfect notes of
veracity. I liked John Gallagher’s work as his nurturing boyfriend to
Grace that has to find a balance between work and personal imperatives.
Kaitlyn Dever is extremely solid in her crucial role as Jayden, a
headstrong, verbally aggressive, but ultimately weak and fragile young
girl that Grace finds herself developing a deep kinship with.
One of the film’s more touching supporting performances is from
Keith Stanfield as Marcus, a young man that’s about to turn 18 (which
inevitably means that he’ll have to exit the care facility) and becomes
truly unsettled with what life on the outside will entail for him.
To cope with such pressures, Marcus begins to defy authority and
act out in unhealthy ways. A
key scene in the film shows him performing a vulgar, but emotionally
ravaging rap song that chronicles his past years of neglect.
It’s a series of low-key, but staggeringly well-rendered little
moments like these that add up to make SHORT TERM 12 feel so endlessly
compelling as a human drama of daily struggles.
only wished, though, that the film was…longer and a bit more developed.
At 90-plus minutes, I felt like the film was just scratching the
surface of its invigorating and intricate characters.
Then there is the manner that the script implodes a bit on itself
during its final act, where some characters make snap-judgments and
puzzling decisions that don’t seem to gel with what occurred beforehand. There is a level of dramatic extremity as the film careens
towards its climax that’s perhaps a bit disingenuous to the relative
sense of grounded authenticity that the story and performances garnered
beforehand. In a current age
when I often lament about films being unnecessarily long, I found that
SHORT TERM 12 could have benefited from being longer.
there’s simply no denying the inherent strengths of the performances
here and the noble-minded and thankless effort on the part of Cretton to
drum up some much needed perspective on the difficulties that at-risk
youth – and their caregivers – deal with while in care homes.
SHORT TERM 12 trusts audiences enough to not needlessly placate
their simple minded needs for tired genre conventions and clichés.
As a result, the film feels vastly and refreshingly purer than many
of its predecessors.