Movie Review: Short Term 12
Austin360.com | Austin American-Statesman
A quick glance at the premise of “Short Term 12” sets off red flags that prepare an audience for a sentimental and predictable narrative. Troubled kids find strength in one another. After a struggle, everyone learns a much-needed life lesson and eventually transcends his or her angst.
But Destin Daniel Cretton’s film, which won the jury and audience awards at this year’s South by Southwest, does not fall victim to overwrought cliches. The movie has an authenticity and intensity that derives from excellent performances by its young cast and a script that never panders to its characters or the audience.
Brie Larson delivers a pained internal performance as Grace, the floor leader at a facility that temporarily fosters children. As novice counselor Nate (Rami Malek) discovers on his first day, the staff must always remain vigilant for emotional and sometimes violent outbursts from the children. The early scene fractures the ground beneath the characters’ and audiences’ feet, giving a tension to the rest of the story.
The workers at the facility share a gentle gallows humor that helps them cope with the gravity of their responsibility, but as Nate learns early on, the workers are there not to play mother or therapist but to create a safe environment for the kids. Despite the need for objectivity and a degree of emotional remove, the workers find it impossible not to form a bond with their charges. Marcus (Keith Stanfield) is a sullen 17-year-old fearful of having to re-enter the world when his quickly approaching 18th birthday arrives. We get his backstory in a stirring rap performance in which he shares his childhood woes with sensitive counselor Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), who uses a gentle hand and sense of humor to connect with the kids.
Mason and Grace live together off campus, a romance the foster kids kids use as a point of good-natured needling. Despite his affection and tenderness with Grace, Mason has trouble accessing the thoughts of the constrained woman. When Grace discovers she’s pregnant, the couple face a world of new possibilities and challenges that overwhelm the Superwoman façade of the seemingly indefatigable Grace.
When the dark, brooding Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) arrives, Grace sees a kindred spirit in the artistic girl with a history of cutting. As Grace tries to understand Jayden’s problems, she gets a better handle on her own troubled history, and both women find comfort in their common ground.
“Short Term 12” plays out some expected beats familiar in the dysfunctional child story but approaches all of the characters’ problems with honesty and sympathy without turning the characters in caricatures. Malek delivers excellent notes of comedic relief as the startled newbie. Cretton told the SXSW audience after the screening that he related to the Nate character, having spent two years at a foster care facility during his time between college and film school. Cretton called the years the best experience he’d ever had.
“Short Term 12” was originally a short film that won the jury award at Sundance in 2009. That film had a male protagonist, and it’s a good thing Cretton decided to turn to Larson when he decided that he was not feeling inspired with the idea of the feature story centered on the male characters. Larson, who has appeared in “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” and “21 Jump Street,” carries the film with her intriguing portrayal of a young woman who wears a hardened shell to protect the wounds that lie underneath it. “Short Term 12” should bring some deserved attention to the young actress and lead to some meatier dramatic roles.