Short Term 12 Reviews
The setup, chronicling the daily workings of a foster-care facility, has been seen before but never handled as convincingly as director Destin Cretton's feature length adaptation of his own short film of the same name. There's a pulse to this film that is absent in many realist dramas, attributed in no small part to a stellar cast... most notably Brie Larson in the lead who is an absolute revelation here.
In fact, everything about this modest production is praiseworthy. From it's memorable supporting turns, to a dedication for not taking the obvious or easy route through a potentially familiar, overly sentimental narrative, "Short Term 12" sings. It's arguably the finest films to ever deal with underprivileged youth and those who dedicate their lives to helping them. A film deserving of it's universal acclaim.
Short Term 12 follows the inhabitants of a small foster care center in Middle America. Many of the kids have been taken from their biological parents because of abuse, neglect, imprisonment, or death. Many have never known a stable home life. And many will age out of the system at 18 and be trusted to make something on the outside by their lonesome. Grace (Brie Larson) is the lead counselor for the center. She's dating a co-worker, Mason (The Newsroom's John Gallagher Jr.) and pregnant, unsure of where to go from here. As the center prepares for one Marcus' (Keith Stanfield) age-out departure, they welcome Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) to their abode. Jayden's well-connected father is getting his life in order for full custody, but it also becomes clear that her home life is a danger to her well-being. Grace fights to get Jayden to open up, then she fights to keep her safe, all the while forcing her to deal with her own long hidden pain.
It's so easy to get engaged in this movie. The very setting calls for plenty of drama and pain to be explored, and it will be, but that doesn't mean that the film goes overboard with histrionics. The characters are written with such naturalistic ease, allowing an audience to understand them without judgment. These people, be they the foster kids or the counselors, feel refreshingly, exceedingly, magnificently like flesh-and-blood people. The characters feel lived in, their struggles feel real, and their responses are sincere. The foster care system in this country is grueling. A counselor needs a big heart, thick skin, and an immeasurable supply of patience. There are a lot of abused kids in the system, just hoping to find an adult who wishes to love them, to nurture them, to care. The kids don't want pity, they are perturbed when they're referred to as "underprivileged youth." What they really want is respect and sincerity. Highly charged emotions are a given considering the circumstances of the characters, but what makes Short Term 12 exceptional is that they are fully earned. We don't just feel for these kids because they've suffered, we feel for them because they are presented as characters instead of martyrs. I was emotionally moved throughout, tearing up several times, feeling heartbroken at turns and then brimming with buoyant hope at others. It's a balancing act the movie masters.
Writer/director Destin Cretin (actually remaking his 2008 short film of the same name) explores these characters in gentle waves, allowing the characters to open up in ways that don't feel forced. You learn about these characters and their history bit by bit, sometimes through creative expression where one must read between the lines. Marcus might seem to be one character, then his rap song he write reveals an aching degree of personal pain, and then the revelation for why he wants to shave his head, which at first just seems like an average teenage compulsion, will break your heart all over again. You yearn for these kids beyond measure, wanting them to taste delayed happiness in this world, but you also understand why they're so guarded, why the system grinds together as it does. This is no polemic overburdened with speechifying and soapboxes. It doesn't really make any larger points about foster reform or the people who run the system. Instead Cretin gives every participant in the film complexity, empathy, and humanity. Even Grace's supervisor, easily set up for quick blame about decision-making, is allowed empathy. You feel the man's plight as he tries to make the best out of a bad situation, which is exactly what the counselors are trying to do themselves with their charges. Cretin's emphasis is on his characters and not necessarily on making overt political attacks. I knew within minutes that I was in for something special. You can feel it with the dialogue, how easily Cretin is shaping character without splurging on exposition. These people come alive under Cretin's watch, and you'll be pulled in within mere moments.
This is also fundamentally a star making performance for Larson. The young actress has had visible roles in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, 21 Jump Street, and TV's The United States of Tara, but nothing prepared me for the power of her performance. Larson's character has plenty of personal pain and secrets and a gnawing sense of futility, but she pushes forward, trying to make a difference somehow in this world. You feel her intensity and determination but you also feel her setbacks and uncertainty. Larson never strays outside the emotional bounds of her character, staying true to her aims. Grace is no saintly and selfless figure. She's paying a real price keeping her own pain bottled up, focusing completely on others so that she doesn't have to assess her own damage, but Jayden forces her to examine her own history. Larson serves as the dependable emotional anchor of some very choppy waters. In a just world, Larson's name would be bandied about come awards season, but the overall small, understated nature of Short Term 12 and its limited release leaves me in doubt. However, there is no doubt that Larson gives a deeply humane, gripping, heartfelt and marvelous performance.
The character relationships are just as compelling and provide a rich texture to this world. The dynamics within the foster center are interesting, nothing as simplistic as slotting kids into staid high school types. There are divisions within the home, chiefly between Marcus and an antagonistic Luis, but it's also invigorating when you witness the various kids come together in solidarity and community, when they look out for one another. Jayden is surly at first but won't let on how truly hurt she is that her father missed her birthday. Marcus leads the other kids and they all make a slew of birthday cards to cheer her up, make her feel that someone out there cares. It's a small gesture, and yet when it plays out it hits with a wallop. The relationship between Grace and Mason is sweet and frustrating, representing a romantic coupling of two people with an obvious connection but also enough baggage to derail potential long-term success. Gallagher Jr. is a nice fit for the part. I really enjoyed how Mason is developed as the film progresses. Initially he seems like a pseudo-cool authority figure, then a scruffy screw-up, then a sincere and grateful individual worried about Grace and aggravated by his inability to help Grace.
There are movies that feel true in a broad sense but clumsy with the fine details, and vice versa, but Short Term 12 is that rare movie that feels so authentic that it could have been a documentary. Sure there is convenient plot developments and a tidiness that life just doesn't want to provide, but the overall impression is remarkably genuine. The character feel like actual people, their world feels recognizable, and their struggles feels familiar and relatable and raw. Short Term 12 doesn't glorify the counselors, nor does it demonize or sanctify the kids under their care. Here is an unblinking look at the sheer weight of the work of trying to provide for those in need. The movie is a potent drama with several heartbreaking incidents, but I don't want to scare people off with the impression that Short Term 12 is all artsy doom and gloom. On the contrary, the film is resolutely hopeful in the face of such dire adversity. The perseverance of the counselors, as well as the kids striving for independent lives, is what I walk away with. Not the abuse, not the systematic neglect, but the indomitable perseverance of the human spirit to transcend damage and to succeed anew. This is the long-lasting impact of this superb movie. It's not about the pain inflicted, rather than human connections forged and the optimism of recovery. Not everything will get its happy ending, but it is inspiring to watch people put it all on the line, thanklessly. Short Term 12 is the kind of movie you bug your friends until they finally watch it. Ladies and gents, commence bugging.
Nate's Grade: A
Recent movies dealing with the issue of care-giving (the obnoxious 'Thanks For Sharing' and last year's 'Smashed') have tended to adopt a patronizing tone, in no way reflective of real life. The setup of 'Short Term 12' in the wrong hands could have easily been another offensive story of flawless white people saving minorities but writer-director Cretton (adapting a story he previously filmed as a short) gives us protagonists who are as flawed as those under their care.
Grace constantly tells her kids they need to verbalize their issues, something she refuses to do herself, much to the annoyance of her incredibly patient boyfriend Mason. Explaining why she cut herself as teen, she tells Jayden "When there's blood coming out of you, you don't have time to worry about anything else" and this seems to be her motivation for caring for others, allowing herself to forget about her own troubled background by focusing on others' more urgent problems.
I don't know if Cretton has a background of working in facilities like this, and I've never experienced one myself, but his portrayal of this world is thoroughly naturalistic and convincing, if slightly too good to be true. I've always loved movies that take you inside an unfamiliar lifestyle, be it the ambulance drivers of 'Mother, Jugs & Speed' or the cops of 'The New Centurions' (a movie this is very reminiscent of), and allow the rules and processes of their world to unfold in a natural way, like being thrown in at the deep end on your first day in a new job.
Larsen is a revelation in the sort of meaty role young actresses are rarely afforded. The ensemble is roundly great though my one complaint is that the kids look a little too clean cut and feel a bit "central casting" when compared to the young untrained actors we've seen a lot lately in European films like 'The Selfish Giant' and 'The Kid With a Bike'.
Though there's a dark undercurrent to the film, Crettin never lets things get too downbeat and avoids falling into the "misery porn" trap. While his film is populated with lovable characters, things never get schmaltzy and you in no way feel like your emotions are being cynically manipulated.
I suspect the real world versions of these facilities are a lot more grim but, like Mason's anecdotes that bookend the film, 'Short Term 12' may not be grounded in truth but it sure is comforting.
If you have to see only one movie about troubled teenagers this September featuring Brie Larson...well, I haven't seen "The Spectacular Now," yet, so it will have to be "Short Term 12" which in any case is very much worth it, especially due to its excellent performances. In addition to one scene that almost made me want to cry, the movie uses humor well to modulate the emotions and to relieve the tension while the characters use it to deflect. Overall, this is a situation where all the characters, both adults and teenagers, are facing an uncertain future where the youth are watched over by people not much older than they are. Of particular interest is Grace, whose past is gradually revealed and knowing what she knows about herself has to decide what kind of parent she will be, if any.