It's rare for a movie to be emotionally devastating while also being overwhelmingly inspirational and hopeful, but Short Term 12 achieves the nigh impossible.
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