"Short Term 12" is a small wonder, a film of exceptional naturalness and empathy that takes material about troubled teenagers and young adults that could have been generic and turns it into something moving and intimate.
Named for the foster care group home for children under 18 where it's set, "Short Term 12" is anchored by the generous and persuasive acting of Brie Larson as a staff supervisor, a performance that recently won the actress award at the prestigious Locarno Film Festival.
Much to the credit of writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton, whose two years of post-college work in a similar facility is key to the film's verisimilitude, "Short Term 12" also took the audience award at both the L.A. Film Festival and South by Southwest, where it received the narrative feature prize as well. This is an accessible film that honestly earns every bit of its emotional impact.
Critical to "Short Term 12's" success is its gift for believability, for putting on screen people who are unmistakable individuals. In a larger sense, this is a film about the riskiness involved in both caring for another human being and having someone else care for you.
Helping this process is writer-director Cretton's natural storytelling gifts. Though "Short Term 12" holds us at once because of the immediacy of its characters, the film's actual plot is revealed only gradually, shrewdly doled out in a series of small surprises. Things may be hidden but we never feel in the dark because the film in effect seduces us into its protagonists' lives before telling us all about them.
"Short Term 12" opens with twentysomething staff member Mason (an excellent John Gallagher Jr. of "The Newsroom") telling new hire Nate (Rami Malek) a long, involved story about something that happened to him on the job, a scene that showcases the good-humored Mason's easygoing nature and genuine empathy.
It's a quality Mason has to call on before he can even finish the story, as young Sammy (Alex Calloway) makes a hell-for-leather break for the gate: If he can get outside the property, the staff isn't allowed to touch him, and he knows it.
Helping Mason run Sammy down is Grace (Larson), the line staff supervisor. Also in her 20s, she is the even-handed calm at the center of the perennial storm that circles around troubled kids. With their different strengths she and Mason make an effective team.
Though the kids don't know it, Grace and Mason are also a caring, in-love couple in their private life, sharing an apartment together in secret. But nothing is easy and without difficulty in "Short Term 12," and we find out almost immediately that Grace has to deal with personal news that strikes her as less than joyous.
As strong as Larson and Gallagher are as Grace and Mason, one key to "Short Term 12's" success is how well thought out and well cast (by Kerry Barden, Paul Schnee and Rich Delia) the kids under their care are.
Kids like the traumatized runner Sammy or the cocky Luis (Kevin Hernandez), kids who everyone has forgotten or tried to forget. Because they know this, there is an air of wariness and danger to them, the ever-present possibility that they will do damage to themselves or others. Even the toughest-seeming are vulnerable, hiding scars from a childhood that might as well never have happened.
Nearing 18 and mandatory release, Marcus (Keith Stanfield) is the oldest of the bunch and one of the film's focuses. Intense and quick to anger, he expresses the depth of his feelings only in furious rap lyrics lamenting "a life not knowing what a normal life's like."
As newcomers will, the arrival of 15-year-old Jayden (a poised Kaitlyn Dever) changes the dynamic of the house. Coming from a well-to-do background, with a snooty attitude to boot, she tells her new housemates she won't be talking to them because she doesn't want to waste her time on short-term relationships.
Smart, bored, entitled though she is, Jayden touches something in Grace. Though no one knows better than Grace the support staff mantra that "you're not their family, you're not their therapist, you're there to create a safe environment," she cannot help but want to get involved.
Given equal weight with what happens between the staff and these kids is what happens between Grace and Mason, a nuanced relationship that gets increasingly complex as different, unexpected aspects of their backgrounds get revealed. So many difficulties need to be surmounted in "Short Term 12" that any respite that can be achieved feels so much sweeter for the struggle that went into it. Sharing pain is the most difficult thing, but it also turns out to be the only thing that makes life bearable.
'Short Term 12'
MPAA rating: None
Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes
Playing: At ArcLight, Hollywood; Landmark, West Los Angeles
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