Even in a summer marked by notable indie releases, Short Term 12 stands out; in fact, it’s one of the best films of the year. No wonder it’s accumulated so many awards, from a jury prize at Sundance to the audience award at South by Southwest and the L.A. Film Festival. Writer-director Destin Cretton expanded it from a short he made in 2008, but there is no sense of padding or marking time here: he grabs us in the film’s opening seconds and never lets go.
Cretton wisely followed the adage of writing about what you know for this screenplay, which earned him the prestigious Nicholl Screenwriting Fellowship from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Having worked in the foster-care system, he brings complete credibility to his portrayal of a facility where sincere young people like the ones played by Brie Larson and John Gallagher, Jr. look after adolescents at risk—the kind of kids who might try anything if you turn your back for a minute. As they warn a newcomer to the ranks of counselors, it’s unwise to try to be their friend until they know you’re primarily their guardian. But the counselors have problems of their own to work through, which are sometimes at odds with their challenges on the job.
In portraying a wide range of attitudes and experiences Cretton never strikes a false note; if anything, you could almost be fooled into believing this is a fly-on-the-wall documentary. I don’t know how a filmmaker (let alone a young one) achieves this kind of naturalism and intimacy, but it’s astonishing to behold. (I felt the same way about The Spectacular Now, which also features Larson in a secondary role.)
Short Term 12 is a remarkable film; don’t let its serious subject matter or modest scale deter you from seeing it. If you do, you’ll be missing one of the shining lights of the movie-going year.