A film review by Craig J. Koban January 31, 2014 


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.  

Alas, 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 gut-punching immediacy. 

SHORT 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. 

Grace, 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. 



Rehab 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. 

The 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.   

The 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.   

I 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.   

Yet, 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. 

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