Stirring "Short Term 12" Might Be The Year's Best

“Short Term 12” is a profoundly moving work from writer-director Destin Cretton, equal parts heartening and distressing – and a hugely deserving contender come awards season. That it’s an ultra low-budget indie is made immaterial by immense performances from its young cast and a superb, humanistic screenplay by Cretton. It’s his first feature – the film is based on his 2008 short by the same name – and it’s a total knockout. An auspicious start, to say the least.

Brie Larson (“21 Jump Street, “The Spectacular Now”) stars as Grace, a staff member at a foster care facility that deals with especially at-risk teens. She works with her boyfriend, Mason – played by John Gallagher Jr. of HBO’s “The Newsroom” – with Cretton immediately establishing the two as normal twenty-somethings. Mason opens the film with an amusingly graphic story about a bathroom emergency, but a patient trying to escape the facility soon interrupts his tale.

The chase that follows is a chaotic initiation for both the audience and new staff member, Nate (Rami Malek). While the scene is played for laughs – mostly thanks to Malek’s wide-eyed newbie – the seriousness of the situation quickly settles in and we begin to grasp the kind of trouble that these kids are in. The facility is always near its boiling point, a resident always on the verge of acting out whether due to family problems, medical issues, or both.

17 year-old Marcus (Keith Stanfield) is perhaps the most distressed of them all, struggling with thoughts of self-harm and bouts of anti-social behavior. He’s a gifted lyricist – as evidenced by a captivating scene in which he raps for Mason – but his lyrics convey an inner darkness that evinces a disturbed psyche. It’s a good thing that Grace and Mason are so well adjusted, then.

Except, they’re not. At all. Grace begins to see a reflection of herself in a new resident, 15 year-old Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), but they share more than a wry sense of humor and razor-sharp intellect. Jayden’s own troubles bring Grace’s bubbling to the surface, and as soon as it looks like her relationship with Mason is about to progress, she begins to emotionally shut down. Jayden’s issues are a mirror image of her own, and in light of some major personal revelations, Grace’s façade fractures.

The seemingly infinite depth of its characters is but one of many things that “Short Term 12” gets so right. Grace, Mason, and their co-workers aren’t mere helpers. They are their patients, just a few years removed from the same kind of despair. Wiser and more experienced, sure, their scars better healed with the passage of time. But they’re still working through their own issues, as evidenced by Grace being forced to face down her demons anew.

The painful bond between Grace and Jayden is the heart of the film, and one scene in particular – in which Jayden recites an original short story – is the kind of devastating that will make viewers want to leap of out their chairs and hug the characters on screen. Dever gives a remarkably nuanced performance for a real-life teenager, and as the lynchpin of the narrative, she seemingly thrives under pressure.

If Grace and Jayden are the heart of the picture, the uneven love story between Grace and Mason is the soul. A handful of moments between the couple are as honest and searing as any I’ve seen this year, and Gallagher’s knowing but forgiving demeanor is perfectly suited to the role. His screen time is limited, but every minute of it effectual and I hope we’ll see more of him on the big screen soon.

But, Brie Larson! She makes the whole film click, effortlessly carrying the heaviest of dramatic material on her shoulders without so much as a bead of sweat. Her wonderfully warm, slightly mysterious screen presence works masterfully with such a conflicted, broken character, one that might be the most important and well-realized female protagonist in years. This isn’t merely a character. It’s a human being, and Larson and Cretton deserve all the praise in the world for bringing her to life so. The film’s climax is one of the seminal scenes of the year, and Larson is right in the middle of it, making it so memorable.

There’s so much more to be said (or written) about “Short Term 12,” but, quite simply, it needs to be seen. It’s cinematic without belying its “slice of life” vibe, emotionally enveloping without being saccharine, and wonderfully acted across the board. I can’t say enough about the uniformly great work from its cast and crew, nor can I remember the last time I was so bowled over by a debut. Well done, Mr. Cretton. Now go do it again.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Classic)

Release Date: August 23, 2013 (Limited)
Studio: Cinedigm
Director: Destin Cretton
Screenwriter: Destin Cretton
Starring: Brie Larson, John Gallagher Jr., Kaitlyn Dever, Rami Malek, Keith Stanfield
MPAA Rating: R (for language and brief sexuality)