Written by Destin Daniel Cretton
Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton
The life sacrificed for your fellow man is at the heart of Short Term 12, a new film focusing on a foster-care facility run by a group of passionate young people, many of whom come from broken homes of their own and are trying to offer safety and shelter where once there was none. These young caregivers have no lives outside of the ones they share vicariously through their charges, all of whom are decent and goodhearted deep below all the pain and fear they present to the world. Though the film’s script relies a bit too much on convenience, especially in the third act, its cast bursts with such vitality and heart that it’s winning all the same.
Brie Larson plays Grace, the supervisor at Short Term 12, a foster care facility for at-risk teenagers who stay for varying periods of time, for a wide swath of reasons from abuse to psychological traumas to everything in between. Though the opening sets up an audience surrogate—new guy Nate (Rami Malek)—the story hinges more on the relationships that Grace has with her co-worker and not-so-secret boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher, Jr.), and a new foster youth, Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), whose troubled childhood mirrors Grace’s to the point where her past traumas threaten to consume her once more.
Short Term 12 is really at its best when the script, by director Destin Daniel Cretton, isn’t trying that hard to work on moving the plot from Point A to Point B. That there are few surprises in the film isn’t meant as a demerit; it shines most when the young adult characters interact with the kids, in a number of engaging, pleasantly naturalistic sequences. Outside of that main quartet of moderately well-known actors, all from films and TV shows where they’ve offered solid support, it wouldn’t be shocking to learn that most of the people on screen are relative newcomers. Even Keith Stanfield, as Marcus, a Short Term kid who’s set to leave the facility in a week because he’s about to turn 18, is challenged to play a raw, open wound of a teenager, yet his work never feels forced. His reaction to getting his head shaved—a personal request he makes early in the film—is particularly painful, honest even if the script feels just a touch manipulative in the dialogue.
The film’s strengths, though, lie inherently with the cast. Brie Larson has, for the last few years, been proving herself a talent to watch with roles in comedies like Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and 21 Jump Street. With her work in Short Term 12, Larson has become a force to be reckoned with, as impressive a young actress as Shailene Woodley and Jennifer Lawrence. Grace is young—her age is never stated, but she can’t be much more than 25—but hers is a rough, worn-down life. What Larson captures so exquisitely in her work is the exhaustion that marks the face of a person who gives their life so selflessly, appreciating that the reward she receives for such neverending toil is knowing, when she goes to bed at night, that she’s done some small shred of good in the world. Larson gets to tackle a whole gamut of emotions; in particular, a moment where she faces off with her mostly absent supervisor is intense and almost shocking, specifically because of how vociferously passionate she becomes about defending the kids she looks after. Grace is a fully formed individual, deeply developed, deeply flawed, and deeply human, brought to life so well by Larson.
The others—specifically Dever—are quite good, though the male characters lack any serious depth. (Of course, in a year that has seemed notably light on female-dominated films, this is a minor complaint.) Gallagher, Jr. gets enough light moments throughout, playing an eternally patient and kindhearted young man, constantly optimistic in the face of seemingly endless personal adversity represented not only by the kids at the facility, but by Grace’s increasingly damaged psyche. Malek is unfortunately a bit underused; he’s shown, in films like The Master and TV shows like The Pacific, a unique, almost eerie calm, and it’s getting a bit rough waiting for some director to figure out how to use his abilities to maximum intent. Still, he’s good; if only he got more to do.
But Short Term 12 is Brie Larson’s show (and, to a lesser extent, Kaitlyn Dever’s). Both actresses are excellent here, even when the plot machinations threaten, even mildly, to overturn the otherwise smoothly paced story. This is both a fine showcase for burgeoning female talent—and please, Hollywood, don’t let these women go to waste as mostly personality-free love interests in whatever blockbuster cash cows are to be released in the years to come—and an important reminder of the challenges teenagers face when they’re forced to regain structure after years of being left adrift in the system. Some of the most emotional moments in this film are not those of characters revealing dark truths or crying to the heavens, but of the random acts of kindness these kids perform for each other, as if to validate their own humanity. When the Short Term 12 kids make birthday cards for one of their own, it’s poignant not just for the gesture, but as a reminder that a single act of decency can save a life.
— Josh Spiegel