Filmmaker John Hughes nailed the dysfunctional relationship between adults and children with the opening quote of The Breakfast Club from David Bowie’s Changes, “And these children that you spit on as they try to change their worlds are immune to your consultations. They're quite aware of what they're going through”. The foster kids in Short Term 12 are sorely conscious of their grim situation but are struggling to understand why their parents failed them. From the perspective of the caretakers, writer and director Destin Cretton offers a wonderfully authentic film about the families built from the fragments of broken homes.
Grace (Brie Larson) is the supervisor of a group of 20-something staff members (John Gallagher Jr, Stephanie Beatriz and Rami Malek) at a home for at-risk teenagers. Grace likes her job and is in a relationship with her co-worker Mason (Gallagher Jr) but a new arrival named Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) and a teen about to leave the facility, Marcus (Keith Stanfield), force Grace into face her troubled past.
In the company of Grace and her team for the first time you hear a story about a kid trying to escape the compound and the requirements of the job are established. Through this early anecdote Cretton creates a dynamic between the staff and how they approach each difficult situation with a sense of humour while being clearly aware of the consequences if they are unsuccessful. The job of working with troubled teenagers is a grind but a strong wit is the key to staying sane. Cretton lays the drama on thick in Short Term 12, and serious issues are addressed, but most of the intensity is diffused with a wry smile which perfectly matches the optimistic tone of the film; it’s about good people doing selfless work to better the lives of young people.
The biggest worry watching Short Term 12 is that it’s the kind of indie drama characters that’s always one car accident away from completely manipulating your emotions with tragedy. I was wincing with every car trip waiting for a truck to come out of nowhere which comes from sitting through so many films where a similar situation eventuates. At times it feels like Cretton is slowly pulling back on a sucker punch, but thankfully, he treats the story, characters and audience with the uttermost respect. Life in foster care is tragic enough and my personal fretting was a sign of a strong emotional connection to the characters; it’s a credit to Cretton and his cast to generate such a robust pull. Cretton and cinematographer, Brett Pawlak, give Short Term 12 a documentary style look which is where the realism comes from. Pawlak takes away any gloss to dump you right into stripped back world inside foster care with stained walls, basic furniture and outdated technology. The look carries over into the lives of the employees who are obviously not paid what they’re worth. The environments are as raw as the emotions of the residents and Cretton and Pawlak make it feel exceptionally real.
The more information shared about Grace and Mason’s history, the more you’re captivated by their chosen career and their ability for them to even get out of bed every day. Grace and Mason’s love seems to be just keeping the demons of their past restrained. Grace is especially hesitant to move forward with the relationship and start a family because it’s the one thing in her life that has caused the most pain. Short Term 12 acts like an origin story for being a parent in the same way it does in a superhero film. Grace must overcome the aches of her upbringing in order to become the person who is going to prevent the same thing happening to her own children. Constantly in the media we hear story about the need to “break the cycle” in low socioeconomic areas and Cretton makes sure the cycle is shattered in touching way.
Jayden and Marcus are fascinating youthful echoes of Grace and Mason and there is a shared space of healing that’s central to the plot. Cretton hasn’t simply presented the teenagers as damaged goods ready to be easily fixed by their carers; they are catalysts for change in Grace and Mason and the journey is reciprocal. The most powerful scenes in Short Term 12 are when these characters share experiences and stories that force self-reflection and allow for growth. It does get a repetitive when the distinct talents of Jayden and Marcus are revealed which pushes the notion that they are ‘special’ a little too hard. Not one character, piece of dialogue or reaction is wasted for the sake of filler, and Cretton’s screenplay is expertly layered with intricate relationships which propel the story forward.
Larson gives an incredible performance and for an actress who has mostly played a teenager throughout her career so far (21 Jump Street, The Spectacular Now and The United States of Tara) it’s her declaration of independence as a serious actor. Larson acts composed and professional but she lets the walls crumble when Grace is emotionally vulnerable. Gallagher Jr has a lovely bond with Larson and you can feel the actor’s heart beating for Grace, the love of his life. Stanfield is outstanding as Marcus and all you need to do is look into his eyes to see a lifetime of hurt and anguish. There is an amazing scene where Stanfield raps and the actor is completely fearless in throwing the core of his character’s suffering out in the open. Dever is excellent as a snarky teenager who sometimes violently explodes with rage and she’s especially great in the tender moments she shares with Larson. In minor roles, Malek is ace as a wide eyed rookie social worker who awkwardly navigates delicate situations and Alex Calloway is freakishly unpredictable playing a heavily medicated shut-in prone to fits of rage.
For a film that tackles heavy issues, Short Term 12 is uplifting without being emotionally manipulative. Making things even more astounding is that it’s Cretton’s first feature film, a terrific debut but also an excellent piece of work one could retire on.
[rating=4] and a half
Cameron Williams - follow Cam on Twitter here: @popcornjunkies