This is not the first film titled Short Term 12 that director Destin Cretton has made. As a student he made a short set during one day at a group home for children and teenagers, inspired by his own experiences of working in a home for at-risk teens. Sadly I haven’t been able to watch this yet, but the trailer shows that some scenarios and even dialogue remain the same in the feature film.
Yet this year’s Short Term 12 still feels remarkably fresh. It is a film which will wow and surprise you.
The opening is a little self-conscious and self-indulgent, as Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), a staff member of the home, draws out a story that no one particularly wants to hear. But then we meet supervisor Grace (Brie Larson) whose story is much more welcome and intriguing.
Grace is great at her job in a way that can’t really be put into words. She functions largely by instinct. The early scenes depict her as a tower of strength ably supporting both children and co-workers. But when the working day is over the film makes a (likely accidental) nod to Jason Reitman’s Juno; Grace straddles her road bike – named Floyd – and heads to the doctors where her suspected pregnancy is confirmed. She is set to have the baby of her boyfriend and co-worker, Mason. Comparisons to Juno end here. There is some witty dialogue – mainly jokes which posit Floyd as a threat to Grace and Mason’s relationship – but nothing that rivals Diablo Cody’s endlessly quotable phrases, and it certainly could not be argued, as some did of Juno, that Short Term 12 is a pro-life film.
Larson gives a committed performance and its nuances are early established in the juxtaposition of her working and private life. Rather than the monotonous rhythm and ultimate sucker-punch twist to Larson’s character in Joseph Gordon Levitt’s Don Jon, her performance as Grace is one which allows the at first distinct work/life strands to later converge.
Short Term 12 continually prompts audiences to interpret Grace and the children she is also attempting to interpret. New arrival Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) is the principal recipient of Grace’s attentions, yet disappointingly an almost-ambiguous narrative which would mirror that of Doubt is eventually closed down and we are given the answers to both Grace and Jayden’s troubled pasts.
In this respect Cretton could have been more subtle and trusted the intuitions of his audience and skill of his lead actress more, but the straightforward revelations do not detract from the film’s heartbreaking and life-affirming effects. Convincing acting means even newbie worker Nate (Rami Malek), marked out as posh and sheltered by his preppy clothes and naïve comments, is likely to provoke empathy. Cretton reportedly based this character on himself.
The film is a visual marvel, with aesthetics never detracting from the power of the story but making it all the more believable as a naturalistic drama. Short Term 12 is mainly populated with real, normal looking people rather than actors made up to resemble porcelain dolls. Details of set and costume, and the occasional jokes characters make about them, cement their status as a part of the world of the film, not just a backdrop on which events or ideas can be played out. Even the slightly irritating opening is redeemed in the structural repetition of Mason’s telling another story as the film concludes. The film ends in the same motion with which it began, increasing its slice-of-life feel.
The final act is far more exciting than I’m willing to divulge. Audiences are likely to be divided, and individuals torn in their response to Grace in the climactic scenes. But it would be impossible for anyone to come away without recognising that alongside the film’s treatment of the horrors of abuse and self-harm is a study in the enduring kindness that humanity is capable of.
If you like Brie Larson in this or in Don Jon check out her work in the Diablo Cody-penned series United States of Tara. She’s just one reason why this is a great show that shouldn’t have been cancelled! Toni Collette stars as Tara, a surburban mother living with Dissociative Identity Disorder (formerly MPD), and Larson plays her daughter Kate. I have previously raved about this here.