Destin Cretton’s second feature length, Short Term 12, arrives on a wave of positive reviews and indie film award nods from last year, though it does not quite break into the mainstream. While still positive, reviews haven’t been quite as gushing this side of the Atlantic, however this is a film worth one’s time.
Short Term 12 follows a temporary “halfway house” for troubled teenagers who are fighting their personal daemons, just as much as the barely older staff who work there. Central to all this is Grace (Brie Larson) who is tough and steely with the varying issues the kids have, as much as she is compassionate and understanding when she needs to be. Underneath it all, she’s harbouring a dark past of her own which she suppresses through her work, but this equally gives her a crucial advantage in connecting with the home’s residents.
All of these complexities are made possible by a knock-out performance from Larson, who inhabits the fully realised skin of Grace; thanks in no small part to Cretton’s excellent, witty script and clever direction. There’s an authenticity not just to Cretton’s real life past experience working in one of these homes, but in understanding humans, whether they be labelled as “underprivileged” or “crazy” or even just “normal”. Importantly, Cretton never gives in to overt sentimentality, maintaining a compassionate and realistic tone keeping the potentially heavy subject matter light and natural. Whereas many films would attempt to beat the viewer over the head with the cruelty some humans display, here there remains humour and catharsis in amongst unflinchingly uncomfortable scenes.
Those scenes centre around the film’s excellent teenage cast, most notably newcomers Kaitlyn Dever as Jayden and Keith Stanfield as Marcus who manage to convey their deeply traumatic experiences in a truly mature, subtle manner, which keeps the film from overreaching. These are expertly performed, as Jayden and Marcus find their individual ways to communicate their trauma to Grace and her partner and co-worker Mason (John Gallagher Jr.)
Gallagher is also great as the sensitive and loving Mason, who is supportive and understandably increasingly frustrated at Grace’s inability to express herself due to her suppression. However it is Larson who truly shines here, finding the perfect balance between a headstrong young woman who has such a horrific past. The chemistry between both her and Gallagher and especially Dever is palpable as Grace finds her outlet as a mother figure to Jayden.
My only real criticism of Short Term 12 is that a couple characters remain slightly underdeveloped. Nate (Rami Malek) for instance is an excellent fall guy which provides much humour from his “outsider” perspective, as someone who merely is looking to boost his CV. Yet he is also initially our focaliser, joining him on his first day at Short Term 12, only for him to be left by the way side without much progression. While this doesn’t matter too much, the story really belongs to Grace and Mason practising as parents for Jayden and Marcus respectively; it is fairly distracting.
That aside, Short Term 12 is a thoroughly enjoyable view of a troubled Los Angeles, America that would allow these kids get into this position in the first place. Thankfully, due to Cretton’s kind hand, there is still a lot of sun-drenched light in amongst the darkness.