Directed by: Destin Cretton.
Written by: Destin Cretton.
Starring: Brie Larson (Grace), John Gallagher Jr. (Mason), Kaitlyn Dever (Jayden), Stephanie Beatriz (Jessica), Rami Malek (Nate), Alex Calloway (Sammy), Kevin Hernandez (Luis), Lydia Du Veaux (Kendra), Keith Stanfield (Marcus), Frantz Turner (Jack).
There are few movie characters that wormed their way into my heart as fully and completely as Grace does in Short Term 12. Like most movie characters that end up doing so, Grace is not a character who begs for attention or love. From the beginning of the film, Grace seems like a person who has everything together – but you can tell she is, in part, putting up a façade and that she is truly hurting inside. Many movies make the mistake of thinking that characters that filmmakers want us to love need to act like hyperactive puppy dogs, begging for affection. Grace – and for that matter the rest of the characters in Short Term 12 – never do that. And that made me love them even more.
The movie takes place at a group home for teenagers. They’re only supposed to be there for a year or less, but many have no place to go and end up spending longer than that there – only being released when they’re 18, and therefore no longer the state’s problem. They have doctors and therapists and administrators – the people who are supposed to monitor the kids and look out for them – but the day-to-day responsibilities fall mainly to the young floor staff. They are the ones who spend hours with the kids every day – and whose basic job description is to keep them busy, out of trouble and on the grounds. If they’re on the grounds, the staff can control them – tackle them and hold them if need be – but if anyone is able to break free to the street, then the staff cannot touch them.
Grace (Brie Larson) is one of the floor staff. We see her in the film’s first scene listening to her boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), another staff member, tell a story she has heard many, many times before – about the day he had follow one of their charges all around town after he broke free, which would be bad enough by itself, but is made much worse by the fact that Mason has diarrhea that day. The story is for the benefit of Nate (Rami Malek), a new staff member, as a way to break the ice, and get him laughing, before they have to deal with the kids at hand – one of whom comes storming out as if on cue, and the staff have to tackle him. Just another day at the office.
Throughout the course of the film, we’ll get to know some of the kids at the home – including smartass Luis (Kevin Hernandez) and the sad, quiet Sammy (Alex Calloway), whose life revolves around the dolls he has to replace his sister (where she is, we never find out). Two eventually come into better focus – Marcus (Keith Stanfield), who is on the verge of 18 and so will soon have to leave, who is quiet and brooding – but in one of the film’s most memorable scenes, delivers a rap that lets you know just how deep his pain is, and how he ended up at the home in the first place. The second is a new arrival – Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) – a 16 year old girl, whose mother died a few years ago, and has been giving her dad a hard time ever since. Unlike the rest of the kids, her dad is still in her life – but cannot deal with his daughter full time anymore. Jayden is angry at the world and isn’t shy about letting everyone know it. She also drags up the past for Grace – already reeling when she discovers she’s pregnant.
Short Term 12 doesn’t have much of a plot – or at least not one you really notice while you’re watching it. Looking back over the film now, it becomes clear just how structured the film is, but while I was watching the film, I was caught up in the day-to-day lives of these characters – the acting being a big reason why. Larson has been an emerging actress for a while now – she was one of my favorite parts of last year’s 21 Jump Street, and had great supporting roles in two other indies this year – as Miles Teller’s girlfriend who dumps him in The Spectacular Now and as Joseph Gordon Levitt’s all but silent sister in Don Jon – three films where she took what could have been nothing roles, and left an impression (particularly in The Spectacular Now, where her character is much deeper than she first appears). But her performance here takes her to another level. It is a natural performance, where she plays a character worried about being hurt, so she plays her cards close to her vest. She doesn’t let anyone in, because she’s scared of being hurt again. Many movies have their characters keep secrets from those around them – and the audience – for no reason other than it’s convenient for the plot, but in Short Term 12, Grace’s reluctance to talk feels natural and real. It is a brilliant performance – one of the best of the year – and anchors the movie.
The rest of the performances are quite good as well – in particular those by Stanfield as Marcus and Dever as Jayden, who play damaged kids who we still cannot help but root for. Gallagher is perhaps a little too perfect as Mason – he doesn’t seem to have any flaws at all – and yet it didn’t bother me very much (in part, I think, because more often than not, it’s a flawed, complicated male lead, with a seemingly perfect girlfriend who helps them through, so the role reversal felt refreshing, rather than clichéd).
Written and directed by Destin Cretton, Short Term 12 is one of the best Indies of the year – a film that goes deeper than most Indies, which concentrate on teenagers with overbearing parents and the malaise of suburbia. The characters in Short Term 12 wish they had those problems.