It’s to the immense credit of all concerned that this tale following the lives of the caring staff and troubled teens of a foster care facility manages to bypass the stereotypes and melodrama to deliver a truly affecting piece of cinema.
A hit at last year’s SXSW, the emotional honesty and intelligence of Short Term 12 is as refreshing as it is rare; as is its ability to break free of the style-over-substance shackles that so often tie down indie movies.
A big reason for this is the cast, led by Brie Larson in a breakout performance as Grace, a supervisor at the titular halfway house whose concern for its neglected kids is so strong that it can prove overpowering, especially when it comes to the facility’s newest addition Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever).
Grace sees a lot of herself in Jayden, an angry and confused teenager struggling to deal with circumstances forced upon her. The film draws parallels between the two (they look so alike they could be sisters) and just as Grace finds that she’s getting through to the trouble youth, the demons of her past creep to the surface and threaten her relationship with boyfriend and co-worker Mason (John Gallagher Jr).
Short Term 12 is ultimately about our inherent desire and fear of bonding and trusting each other. Marcus (Keith Stanfield, giving an excellent performance) is about to turn 18 and, as a result, must leave the facility. The fear of facing the outside world and giving up the connections he has made in order to form new ones is written on his face and explicit in his self-destructive actions. When he performs a rap he’s created to Mason, the pain Marcus feels is etched into each word, but so is the strength that opening up gives him.
These are kids who have been deprived of care and attention and struggle to adapt when it is offered. Sometimes small tokens, such as a cupcake, are enough. More often than not, these kids just need someone they can relate to.
In much the same way as Jaws‘ Brody, Hooper and Quint, a shared moment comparing scars (in this case caused by self-harm) generates a connection between Grace and Jayden and offers a moment of realisation that neither need be alone to face the pain they hold within.
The bond between Grace and Mason is affectionately handled and given an honest edge by the two performers. Mason clearly loves Grace, but is frustrated she won’t fully open up to him, while a shock development in Grace’s life threatens to tip their relationship over the edge.
Writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton never ventures into Dangerous Minds cod-inspirationalism or been-there-seen-it grittiness (handheld camerawork aside); rather he earns the affection we feel for each fully rounded major and minor character and lets the story play out.
Short Term 12 is a genuine pleasure and should be regarded as a calling card for both its director and exciting young ensemble.