Film Review – Short Term 12
Short Term 12
It must be unnerving growing up in the foster care system. The people you thought would be there are gone, you’re surrounded by strangers, and your days are filled with confusion, fear, and anger. I wasn’t raised in foster care, but for a while my parents opened their home as a temporary place for foster children to stay. I couldn’t begin to comprehend what these people experienced at such a young age, and how their futures hung so precariously by a thread. Destin Daniel Cretton’s film Short Term 12 provides a glimpse into this world, from the kids left without guidance to the staff members trying to help them find their way. It’s not an easy watch; we’re confronted with some very dark and serious material. But the film always searches for truth in its sincerest form—it never drifts towards melodrama.
Brie Larson gives an honest and compelling performance as Grace, a staff member at a small foster care facility. There are a handful of kids there, but Grace and her boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) do their best to give each one the kind of attention they need. They act more like older siblings than authority figures, maybe because they also grew up in broken homes and were raised by foster care. They know how to handle each personality, because they have felt those feelings before. Grace and Mason are maybe a little too adept at their job. They know what to do at the right time, and connect with each kid in the perfect way. If one resident has a temper problem, they can calm them. If another has an issue with cutting themselves, they know how to break through that wall.
More than any other staff member, Grace holds a particularly sympathetic perspective for the residents. We learn that she has a dark past herself, one so troubling that it continues to haunt her to the point of straining her relationship with Mason. Brie Larson captures all of the complexity of her character in a natural way. She is funny and smart, but beneath her exterior is a vulnerable place she is hesitant to share with anyone, even with her boyfriend. When she starts seeing signs of similar cases with the kids—specifically Marcus (Keith Stanfield) and Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever)—Grace jumps into action to prevent the worst from happening, even going further than her job requires her to.
It’s at these moments when the film gets the most heart wrenching. Cretton’s screenplay allows ample opportunity for us to see Grace’s and Mason’s relationship unfold, but it’s really the small intimate moments with the kids that moved me. Marcus and Jayden are true standouts, with Keith Stanfield and Kaitlyn Dever delivering nuance to their portrayals. Marcus is a young man on the verge of turning 18 and stepping out into the real world, and his fear of leaving the facility coupled with his violent past results in a lifetime of anger bottled up inside of him. The same can be said of Jayden, whose upbringing caused her to shut everyone out and spend most of her time listening to music and drawing in her notebook. In one emotional scene, Jayden tells a story to Grace through pictures she drew, and their connection makes for one of most powerful moments we see.
There are plenty of tense scenes here, and through certain stretches we find ourselves wary about learning more about these people. But that isn’t to say there aren’t points of levity as well. Thank goodness for characters like Mason, whose laid back demeanor works as a counter balance to Grace’s high anxiety. John Gallagher Jr. appears as though he stood up out of nowhere and walked right into the movie. I mean that as a compliment; it’s not that he isn’t putting in much effort, but that he makes his performance look effortless. Rami Malek provides another comedic touch in new staff member Nate, who is more out of place than any other person in the facility. He doesn’t have the experience other employees do, and he isn’t quite able to reach out to the kids the way he wants, but he sure tries his darndest. Both Mason and Nate are essential; without their presence, the film would almost be too heavy to bear.
Short Term 12 is really more about the journey than it is the destination. The plot stumbles at the finish line, as each story gets wrapped up a little too conveniently. For something that strives for realism, it ends on a strangely upbeat note, barely managing to fit with everything that came before it. But when the film is clicking, it does so in a stripped down, simple, and straightforward manner. We could have easily been exposed to emotional manipulation, but whatever we feel is brought about by the power of the performances along with Cretton’s insistence not to turn away from these characters. These are the people that are too frequently neglected by society, but he asks us to acknowledge them, even if it’s only for a brief instant.