Director: Destin Cretton
Starring: Brie Larson, Kaitlyn Dever, John Gallagher, Jr.
Children are often credited with possessing a preternatural ability towards resilience, but the pains endured in childhood can be the slowest to heal. Destin Cretton's Short Term 12 is about people in pain, suffering from the still open wounds of bad childhoods, struggling not to let that pain define or consume them. It's a sharp, character driven film that unfolds without affectation, driven forward by the compelling performance at its center. Although it falters ever so slightly in its final act, moving away from realism to engage in a climax that is purely the thing of movies, for the most part Short Term 12 rings with blunt authenticity. It's not always nice, but it feels real.
Set for the most part at a facility for at risk teens, Short Term 12 is seen largely through the eyes of Grace (Brie Larson), the daytime supervisor. As the film opens Grace, her co-worker and boyfriend, Mason (John Gallagher, Jr.), and other co-worker Jessica (Stephanie Beatriz) are showing new staff member Nate (Rami Malek) the ropes, cautioning him that the kids will be testing boundaries with him because he's new. Almost immediately Nate makes the mistake of referring to the kids, to their faces, as "underprivileged," prompting an angry outburst from Marcus (Keith Stanfield), a tightly coiled kid whose nervousness at the prospect of turning 18 and leaving the facility is being channeled into rage. Marcus' anger, however, quickly transfers to Luis (Kevin Hernandez), one of the other kids in the facility, so that the staff needs to find ways to de-escalate the situation, while also dealing with Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), a new arrival whose "seen it all" attitude makes it difficult for the staff to get to the root of her issues and help her.
As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Grace's growing interest in helping Jayden is, in part, because she sees her own experiences of abuse, both the self-abuse of cutting and abuse at the hands of others, reflected in Jayden. As her personal life begins to drift beyond her control - Grace learns that she's pregnant and is uncertain about her desire or ability to parent, and she learns that her father is about to be released from prison - her need to help Jayden becomes increasingly intense. After Jayden shares a story that she's written with Grace, Grace becomes convinced that Jayden's situation with her father is worse than anyone knows, but runs up against a wall of bureaucracy when she tries to get Jayden further support. Her frustration with the system, fueled by her own demons that she's failed to properly deal with, prompts her to take action that crosses ethical lines, if not necessarily moral ones.
Written and directed by Cretton, adapted from his short film of the same name, Short Term 12 is a film which lives very comfortably in its setting, exploring characters and situations which it seems to know intimately. Scene after scene unfolds with an unforced grace that makes them seem less scripted than simply observed, establishing a rhythm for scenes within the facility, where an ordinary interaction can turn volatile without warning and where staff members have to tread carefully with their charges, reaching out without pushing. Scenes which in the hands of a lesser director would edge towards manipulative, such as when Marcus performs a rap for Mason which distills his experiences before going into care and his fears at the prospect of aging out of it or when Jaydon reads her story to Grace, instead have a stinging hint of truth because Cretton trusts the material enough to let it speak for itself without editorializing or loading it down with unnecessary flourishes. The only time the film falters from this sense of realism is during its climax, when Grace makes a series of decisions which seem more like something a character in a story would do than what an actual person in an actual situation with consequences would do.
Yet, even that scene ultimately, if uneasily, works thanks in large part to Larson's committed and unwavering performance as Grace. Grace is a complex character, one who strives to help the kids in her charge and encourages them to talk their way through their bad experiences, but who runs from her own past and would sooner do anything but talk about it, regressing into harmful behaviors and thought patterns in her effort to avoid her feelings. She hides her scars well - at least for the first two thirds of the film, before she begins to unravel - but they run extremely deep and inspire her actions more than she lets on, or perhaps realizes. She's a compelling character and marvelously played by Larson, who never allows her to descend into histrionics even in that problematically overwrought scene. Short Term 12 isn't a perfect film, but it comes achingly close, and it has heart enough to make up for its slight narrative misstep.