While we aren’t likely to get sympathy from anybody, it becomes a tough slog keeping track of the literally hundreds of movies that muscle their way into theaters every year. Especially during those arduous summer months, where every expensive blockbuster looks and sounds the same, the characters have all the substance of rice paper, and whether the film is even worth the price of a single ticket a dozen sequels are already on the way. What little aspirations these movies have don’t really amount to much, and mostly they’ll be forgotten in the time it takes to cross the mall food court. But then a film like Short Term 12 emerges out of nowhere and blindsides you in a way few movies could ever hope to, and serves as a reminder of why you fell in love with cinema in the first place.
Those are big words, and Short Term 12 lives up to them in every way possible. It’s a spark plug of a film, the sort of life-affirming, uplifting piece that Hollywood doesn’t make any more. You have to go out and work to find a movie like this, and while that’s sad in its own right, you’ll be much happier for having done it. The supremely talented Brie Larson is Grace, a young woman working at a short term foster care facility watching over at-risk (don’t call them underprivileged!) teens. She’s fierce, empathic, and protective to a fault, but Grace also has a warmth and dry humor that is instantly welcoming. Her live-in boyfriend Mason (The Newsroom’s John Gallagher Jr.), all scraggly and earnest, works with her at the facility and they form a sort of power couple, although the kids aren’t supposed to know they’re dating.
When we first meet them both, it’s on Nate’s (Rami Malek) first day working there, and while Mason is deep into a self-deprecating story about a run-in with a minor that led to an unfortunate sharting incident, one of the youths in their charge bursts through the doors headed for the street. At first it’s unclear whether we should take it seriously or if it’s supposed to be funny, but the reactions by Grace and Mason tell it all. They’ve seen this before. They’re used to it. They’ve lived it. The boy is having a panic attack. They deal with it. Calmly. Simply. Dealing with the problems of others is what they’re good at. Dealing with their own issues is a different story.
You hear that a film takes place at a foster home and probably the first instinct is to write it off as just another sickly sweet melodrama or one so brutally uncomfortable and depressing it should come with a warning label. The magic of Short Term 12 is that it’s neither of those things. Yes, it has moments that will reach into your heart and fill it with the utmost joy, but there are just as many that are heart breaking. The trick is that writer/director Destin Cretton plays them all with the same level-headed approach, never under playing or over selling the very real emotions on display.
We think we have Grace all figured out, she’s smart and tough and takes no crap from anybody. But then we learn right along with her that she’s pregnant, and what we don’t fully understand is why she doesn’t seem to be happy about it. It’s not for the usual concerns, that much is clear. And Mason seems like the perfect All-American guy. Those questions swirl believably to create a storm that eventually begins to break the stoic Grace down. The arrival of Jaden (Kaitlyn Dever), a rebellious young girl who spends weekends with her busy father, dredges up old memories Grace would rather forget, and her inability to deal with her past problems threatens to ruin her future with Mason.
Cretton is truly writing to his strengths here, having worked in a facility just like this at one point. He populates the film with believable characters that could have easily been stereotypes, but are so much richer as their stories unfold. There’s Marcus (the incredible Keith Stanfield), who has been there for years and faces uncertainty now that he’s 18 and must leave the facility. Like prisoners who don’t know how to function on the outside, Marcus begins acting out in increasingly desperate fashion. To him, foster care was a port in the storm, after a horrific upbringing seemed to map out a terrible life that could only end in two ways: jail or death.
Revelations unfold with the patience and care they deserve, never for a moment hitting a false chord. What’s more, they actually inform us about who these characters are. Every word, every moment has meaning, has real impact. What looks like a random party for Mason’s parents becomes one of the affecting and touching scenes in the film, letting us in on exactly why he values honesty and family more than anything else. Mostly it’s Jaden and Grace who gets the biggest breakthroughs, and like life they come when you least expect it. It’s a true emotional roller coaster, one that comes with incredible highs and terrible lows. You’ll laugh as Grace and Jaden beat up an inflatable dog as a means of therapy, or at Mason’s lame attempts to be cool. You’ll cry as one reveals a deeply-rooted personal tragedy, or when another slips into destructive habits. And then you’ll probably cry tears of happiness at all of the little triumphs along the way. Ok, so it’s a little crazy that so many events hit this one facility in the span of a few days, it never for a second feels less than authentic. Only at one time, when Grace goes a little nutso and begins taking matters into her own hands does Cretton go a bit overboard. While the actions Grace takes are probably consistent given her protective nature, it veers a little into “wish fulfillment” territory.
Larson has always been a fantastic actress, who has stolen scenes in 21 Jump Street, The Spectacular Now, and in Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Don Jon, but her performance is the kind that careers are made of. It’s a tough balancing act to portray a character like Grace, who is so tough and confident, yet fragile and scared at the same time. She captures the look of someone who has been through a lot and expects to go through a lot more, and will work tirelessly to make sure others don’t have to endure the same. There’s a wonderful, lived-in quality to all of the portrayals here, so much so that at times you may think you’re watching a really well-made documentary.
Short Term 12 has already amassed a number of awards on the festival circuit, and it deserves every single one. It deserves more, actually. It deserves to have some awards created specifically for it. As you might expect, there are no simple endings to this story, but the ending we do get is a hopeful and spirited one, and it may just have you looking at life with brighter eyes.