It’s Nate’s (Rami Malek) first day at the adolescent foster care facility Short Term 12, and his new coworker Mason (John Gallagher Jr., scruffy and soulful) is regaling the staff with a silly monologue about an unfortunate sharting incident he suffered in the line of duty. It's a funny tale, but it also lays out exactly what kind of people these workers are, willing to forego all bodily comfort in order to make sure these kids are okay. They’re a no nonsense bunch who’ve seen it all and remain unflappable, particularly supervisor Grace (Brie Larson), a steely and impenetrable young woman. They don’t even blink when a skinny kid with bright red hair goes bolting out of the house in his long johns, making a break for it. They just toss their coffee and tackle him on the front lawn before he gets past the gate and past their jurisdiction. This is the opening to “Short Term 12,” the second feature from writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton, based on his short film of the same name, which won the Jury Prize at Sundance in 2009. And even though it is a lightly amusing intro to our main characters and where they work, it’s a strong set up for the themes that will be revisited throughout the film, in the touching story of these young workers and their charges.
“Short Term 12” brings a true authenticity to the inner workings of this facility, and the tone is pitched perfectly, fusing serious issues with a touch of humor, a lot of heart, and a healthy dose of realism. This is probably due to Cretton’s own experience working in a facility of this nature, and it serves the film well, as what could drift into melodrama or sentimentality is always righted by the realistic and delicately varied tone of the film. Real life drags people through a lot of different emotions from moment to moment and the film captures just that. The troubles these workers see are just another day at the office for them, but that doesn’t mean they’re uncaring – quite the opposite. They put their bodies and hearts on the line for these kids, strongly bonded to them, even though they sometimes have to push those feelings away in order to do their jobs.
Brie Larson manages this perfect pitch of tone in her riveting performance as Grace, the center of this story, and the true embodiment of this quandary between work and personal life. She’s dating her coworker Mason, and a new resident (Kaitlyn Dever) at the home has her revisiting her past life in a way that is throwing everything in the present into tumult. The majority of the story takes place over about a week when Grace has some major life decisions to make on top of everything else going on at the facility, and Larson takes on the heft of this multi-faceted role with ease. She manages to convey her character as someone fierce and strong and steely, and also utterly fragile, delicate, scared and broken. It’s an incredible emotional and physical performance, and she’s a whirlwind, whether chasing down a kid, worrying at her cuticles or smashing something in cathartic anger.
The storytelling is deliberately structured, drawing you in instantly to these characters and then allowing their stories to open up like an onion, reveal after reveal leaving the viewer devastated, hopeful, or breathless with suspense. What Cretton did so well in his first feature, “I Am Not A Hipster,” was hold certain things back so that they were that much more powerful when revealed, and he does that again and again in this script. You care about these characters as workers before you know their histories, which, when revealed, illuminate and deepen them further as people. These reveal moments can be both shocking and touching, but everything fits together like a puzzle, all of the pieces scattered throughout the film finding their place.
It’s gorgeously shot, many images still lingering in mind: Mason and Grace jumping in a bouncy house; the resident workers running in slow motion after a kid on the run. The cinematography creates an eye-level and visceral naturalistic experience of this world, capturing moments in unexpected ways. Ultimately, the cinematography does what it’s supposed to do: reflect the themes and goals of the film itself, beyond just looking beautiful. “Short Term 12” expresses its serious subject matter in a fresh and authentic manner, never relying on the content itself to keep the viewer’s interest but how it unfolds for the audience, anchored to these characters who we grow to deeply care about. In the end, “Short Term 12” is a roller coaster of every emotion, managing to be both heartwarming and heartrending at once. But what a great ride. [A]
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This review is a reprint of our coverage from the 2013 SXSW Film Festival.