The most difficult part of making a movie about troubled teenagers is authenticity. With inferior films of this type, either the teenagers won’t seem particularly troubled, or the adults’ attempts to help them will seem insincere and ineffective. Destin Daniel Cretton’s new effort Short Term 12 developed sizable buzz at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year as a film that evades those traps and provides a convincing vision inside a group home. Sundance buzz is not always justified, but in this case, the film more than exceeds whatever the Park City, Utah audiences might have said about it.
Brie Larson (21 Jump Street, The United States of Tara) plays Grace, the supervisor of unit 12 in short-term group housing for at-risk teenagers. She has to break in a new staff member, Nate (Rami Malek), but otherwise there is very little in the film’s beginning that does not seem like an everyday occurrence for her. She seems to be in a challenging but steady lifestyle, aided by boyfriend and fellow staff member Mason (John Gallagher Jr., a.k.a. Jim from The Newsroom). It’s only when a problem emerges from her past that her current cases suddenly seem too big for her to handle.
The everyday feel of the film helps it dodge many of the traps that lesser films would fall into. Although Nate is a newbie, he’s not an audience surrogate; thus, there is very little boring exposition dropped upon him about how the system works or what he should expect. Instead, the audience simply accompanies Grace into the home environment and is asked to accept it, with no idea of how at-risk these kids actually are.
All of the actors playing teenagers in Short Term 12 are good, but the standout is Keith Stanfield as Marcus, a young black man who is too old to stay in the home but may not be prepared to leave. In limited screen time, he displays a boiling cauldron of emotion beneath his expressionless face, creating a gulf between him and the other actors, which goes well beyond race or class. Marcus is self-aware, knowledgeable of the fact that it’s on him to avoid becoming a statistic, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy for him to heal.
The key to Larson’s superb performance is that Grace can’t heal either, and she doesn’t even know it. Grace suddenly finds herself in a position where she should be following the advice that she gives to teenagers on a daily basis, but she just can’t do it. This is not an instance of hypocrisy or poor writing: it highlights the very challenge Grace faces every day. There’s a reason that the kids in the group home act out, can’t follow rules, or sometimes cause trouble, and it’s not because they’re inherently bad people. It’s because their pain is too deep to keep control of, just like Grace’s. Larson has to deliver that difficult message entirely upon her own, and she is more than up to the challenge.
Maybe the most important moment in the film is when Mason tells a story to Grace and Nate with a surprisingly happy ending. The audience is not shown this story through any kind of flashback, and Mason presents the surprise by saying it’s “like outta the fuckin’ movies!” That’s the heart of Short Term 12: happy endings may be possible, but these characters will almost never get to see them. Their role is simply to be the caretakers, to create a place where the pain can ease. Trying for any more than that would shatter the film’s winning sincerity.