Wonderfully written and directed by Destin Cretton (I Am Not A Hipster), Short Term 12 is actually based on Cretton’s 2008 short film of the same name, which also stars Brie Larson and several other cast members. Premiering at the 2013 SXSW Film Festival Short Term 12 won the Grand Jury Narrative Feature Award and the Narrative Audience Award, and has since been nominated for several Independent Spirit Awards. It is a sincere film that is full of life, with fantastic performances and arresting drama that provokes almost every emotion imaginable from an audience. Infusing well-suited humour, and without overdone sentiment, Cretton beautifully balances the uplifting and the heartbreaking in an authentic telling of tremendously moving human stories.
So observant is this study of the relationship between caretakers and residents at a foster-care facility that you leave questioning whether Cretton has had some experience in this environment himself. Extraordinarily, he has worked in a facility like the one he depicts, and has actually drawn influence from his personal encounters. It is a film about the emotional and physical scarring suffered my many youths, and the role these facilities (and passionate supervisors) play in offering a safe environment for temporary refuge and in helping to ease them back into society.
Grace (Larson, 21 Jump Street) is a twenty-something supervisor of a Southern California foster-care facility called Short Term 12. She works long, tough hours as a nurturing and counseling presence for damaged and at-risk teenagers and provided leadership for her colleagues (some of whom are experienced, others we join on their first day). She loves her long-term boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher Jr, The Newsroom), who also works at Short Term 12, and their mutual understanding of the line between their professional and romantic relationship is one of the many charms in the film. These two are perfect for one another, and it is obvious. Over the course of the film Grace will be forced to deal with a mounting series of personal anxieties that have been bubbling beneath the surface as a result of some unexpected recent news and the arrival of a new girl Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), whom she closely relates to. This begins to affect both her relationship and her profession until she is forced to take on her own advice.
Nothing is clearly laid out for us here, with the complexity of what Grace is privately grappling with concealed for quite some time. She is so rundown by the world – her own troubled past, the state of some of these kids – that she cannot see just how her job is equipping her for the beautiful future she is so unsure about. She is a passionate young woman, tough and dedicated, but beneath her hardened exterior is someone scared and fragile. We can see she is agitated – she picks obsessively at the skin on her hands, takes solo bike rides into the night, and unusually loses her temper when one of her charges is incorrectly diagnosed by the therapists and allowed to leave. Mason pleads with Grace to let him in but she stubbornly attempts to continue to help the kids without letting herself get a look in.
We learn plenty about each of these layered, endearing characters – Mason’s childhood situation and what inspired him to take on this profession, the severity of the gifted Marcus’ (Keith Stanfield) frustrations and the crippling fear he has of the outside world – through surprising ways. They are all so richly explored that come the end of the film they feel like new friends.
There is something graceful about how this cleverly structured film unravels. There is a natural sense of energy to every scene – from the jubilant birthday celebrations, to the devastatingly personal one-on-one shares - an effortless chemistry between the cast and an expertly photographed fly-on-the-wall style that has clearly been helmed by a very intelligent filmmaker.
The design work in Short Term 12 is also brilliant. Simple of shots of blank, empty dorm rooms conveys a cold feeling, but once these walls are plastered with snapshots of the lives of these youngsters, and the community of bonding, they soon find homely life. The realistic locations, and this includes the home environment of Grace and Mason, play an important role. Accompanying musical cues, so common for indie films of this nature, for the most part work effectively.
Peppered with stunning acting - the sensational Larson, who gives this career role her all, finds resounding support from Gallagher, who proves to enjoy giving a goofy anecdote, but is an incredibly caring, loyal person. Stanfield has been acknowledged at the Independent Spirit Awards for what I think is his first screen role outside of his involvement in Cretton’s short. A guy to watch for.
Short Term 12 is a wonderful film. Tackling serious issues with optimism, it possesses an authenticity that comes about so rarely and embraces the essential role of the foster-carer and the daily strain they put themselves through to ensure others have a better life. I didn’t want to leave these characters. It is one of the year’s best films, make it a Boxing Day priority.
[rating=4] and a half
Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22
Andy Buckle is a passionate Sydney-based film enthusiast and reviewer who has built a respected online voice at his personal blog, The Film Emporium. Andy will contribute reviews, features and be our resident film festival, and awards expert.