Winner of the Grand Jury Narrative Feature and the Narrative Audience Award at this year’s SXSW festival, Short Term 12 is a moving, personal film about people, their scars and how they move on. My review after the jump.
We meet Grace (Brie Larson) at the start of her workday as a supervisor at the short-term juvenile housing facility called Short Term 12. Grace has a no-nonsense approach and has gained the kid’s respect through her unwavering application of the rules, and her genuine care for them. Grace always takes the time to listen and while she’s not a parent, she tries to be that temporary stable adult figure that they need. Working alongside her is a group of other twenty-somethings, including her boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher Jr), a giant goofball with a heart of gold. The two may seem like an odd fit, but they love between them is very evident, despite their efforts to hide it at work. They both come from backgrounds where they can relate to the kids in their care, and Mason makes Grace feel safe, which for her is the most important thing of all.
The film joins Short Term 12 during the final days of 17 year-old Marcus’s (Keith Stanfield) stay at the faculty. Marcus is having difficulty coming to terms with having to leave, and is not coping. At the same time, a new resident, Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever ), a young girl having difficulties at home, is admitted to the centre. Jayden’s difficulties awaken the pain which is barely hidden behind Grace’s smiling face, as Grace sees a lot of herself in the troubled young girl. Jayden’s arrival coincides with significant changes for Grace in her personal life, further heightening her emotional state and anxiety.
It’s the humanness of Short Term 12 which makes it one of this year’s best films. It is obvious that writer-director Destin Cretton had some personal experience or connection to foster care, as the scenes that played out felt like they were lifted from real life. In this interview with Slant Magazine, Cretton explains,
It wasn’t until it was time to do my thesis project at San Diego State University. I started looking through my old journals and revisiting some of the entries I was writing while I was working at the foster-care facility. At the time, I wasn’t writing them thinking I was going to make a movie. I was writing them to get it out of my system.
Cretton’s screenplay comes from a place of understanding, one that doesn’t sugar-coat the reality of the situations, but it also doesn’t lay it on too thick. With the dark, delicate subjects which are broached in Short Term 12, it could have been easy to over-dramatise events and emotionally manipulate the audience, but Cretton avoids this. His talented ensemble cast, led by Brie Larson, shows the feelings through their body language and genuine emotions and well-balanced screenplay, which contains many moments of true laughter along with the despair. There are also moments of real tension, heart-in-your-mouth scenes where it’s almost impossible to breathe.
Brie Larson gives an incredible, measured performance in Short Term 12, and thoroughly deserves the praise and awards she is receiving. I was also particularly impressed by Keith Stanfield who played Marcus, a character with an extremely tough exterior but a fragile core. A scene involving Marcus sharing a song he had written with Mason was particularly moving, and displayed Stanfield’s obvious vocal talent. In these intimate moments Cretton ensures the camera is close, aiding in the creation of powerful, personal scenes.
Short Term 12 is a truly remarkable film. I look forward to seeing what Cretton works on next.
By Sam McCosh
Director: Destin Cretton
Writer(s): Destin Cretton
Starring: Brie Larson, Frantz Turner, John Gallagher Jr, Kaitlyn Dever, Stephanie Beatriz
Runtime: 96 minutes
Release date(s): Australia: December 26 2013