Directed by: Destin Cretton
Starring: Brie Larson, Frantz Turner, John Gallagher Jr, Rami Malek
I had the pleasure of seeing two films at the cinema within 24 hours the other day. One was blockbuster masterpiece Gravity, the other, Destin Cretton’s independent movie Short Term 12. Gravity was awe-inspiring, Short Term 12 left me astounded.
Short Term 12, which received a limited release at the beginning of November, is fully worthy of all the praise and critical success it reaped on the festival circuit earlier in the year. A small story focusing on the lives of a handful of troubled foster-care teens and their supervisors at the eponymous Short Term 12, this film is one of the year’s best, examining the joyous and distressing moments that make up the days for this select group of people.
The understated performances by every single player in the cast are pitch-perfect, including newcomer Keith Stanfield as rising-18 year old Marcus and John Gallagher, Jr. as facility worker Mason, but Brie Larson singularly excels in her spellbinding first feature film lead role. Larson’s Grace is fiercely protective of the kids she supervises; remaining (mostly) cool and reliable despite the tough challenges faced each day in the foster-care facility. Grace is fantastic at her job and as a leader that others can aspire to emulate, but of course, her understanding of the kids in her care comes from a much darker place. Beneath her hard-working and kind demeanour is another young woman desperately trying to cope and struggling to be free of her own terrible past.
As we discover over the course of the film, Short Term 12 is more than a facility, it’s a home; for the staff it is more than simply a job, they are caring for a family – a family that is constantly expanding, contracting, threatened by external forces and internal difficulties. When Grace’s life spins into turmoil following the arrival of teen Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), the young girl’s parallel life causes a fracture in the haven of Short Term 12 that Grace seems to have created for herself. Viewers see how deeply connected each of these people are. Their lives may be different, but their stories are inevitably entwined.
Through Grace and a couple of other foster kids at the facility, we learn how much past abuse continues to cling to the victim, monstrously sinking its claws in and tearing you apart with its teeth. Cretton’s film is not a study of abuse begetting abuse, but instead the fear and trepidation associated with that concept (poignantly examined by Grace’s decisions regarding a pregnancy). All the characters here strive to beat the odds and triumph over their adversity, however hard it may be. What this film shows is how wounds can heal, scars will form and (to extend a metaphor used in a compelling story told in one particular scene) limbs can regrow – what is lost can be found again.
By being allowed access into Short Term 12, viewers see how significant the little things are, with many notable character points being revealed slowly but surely, such as the hesitant response to a throwaway line early on by Marcus asking to shave his head – a gesture revisited later in the film to tearful and astonishing effect. This is beautiful cinema, and above all, perfect storytelling.
Although there is a hefty dose of sadness here as we peer into how wretched the lives of others, of children, can be, Short Term 12 is also uplifting, funny and riveting to watch. This is a small story that contains a vast variety of themes – love, loss, family, friendship, kindness, loyalty, betrayal, angst, hurt, sacrifice – and tackles a number of social issues, such as child abuse, parenthood and the transition to adulthood. It is a completely human story; a film that reflects completely the people at its heart – easily overlooked but with the potential and ability to leave a profound and lasting impact.