Review: Short Term 12

Don Malvasi

There are breakthrough performances and there are smashing, no-holds-barred unforgettable ones.
Brie Larson plays Grace, a guardian in a group foster home for wayward youth. Grace has the added advantage that she grew up in a similar environment after an estrangement with her dad. She can be tough and see through bluffs and manipulations and, even more importantly, know when and how to offer empathy and tenderness. Larson’s uncanny performance still resonates days after seeing the film.

Short Term 12, the sophomore feature from Destin Cretton, jumps out as one of the year’s best films despite one of the year’s worst selections for a title. Cretton himself experienced working in such a facility and it shows in spades. Except for stretches in its last quarter, a fiction film hasn’t felt this much like a documentary since United 93. Cretton works his ensemble cast like a savvy orchestra conductor. Not only is the previously nondescript Larson brilliant, but John Gallagher Jr. (The Newsroom) as Mason, her co-worker and clandestine lover, and Keith Stanfield as Marcus and Caitlyn Fever as Jayden, two of their charges, also offer the rare privilege of watching actors who remove from the viewer virtually any sensation that they’re actually acting.

Marcus is approaching 18 and beginning to get cold feet because he’ll soon be leaving the home. Although he seems to hate it there, the prospect of going back into the real world seems a lot worse. A scene where Mason skillfully reaches out to him and the usually near-catatonic Marcus begins to recite an out-of-nowhere, pitch-perfect, deeply moving rap, is a scene so good you’ll want to see it again. The soon to be 15-year-old Jayden is very brught and wittily harsh. Hiding a deep boiling-under-the-surface wound, she comes off like an adult one moment, and touchingly, a hurt baby the next. She’ll go on to grow closer to Grace despite her resistance.

Cretton refuses to put sprinkles and hot fudge around his story. If you come into Short Term 12 prepared for an arthouse-lite, feel-good film that solves all , you’ll be disappointed. Grace and Mason aren’t therapists and many of the problems the film presents have no apparent solutions. Yet the film’s humanity will shake you. Grace and Mason make the situation as palpable as they can and we feel them reaching another level in going places with these kids that offer them a gift that no therapist can equal. They offer the act of hands-on caring–one tough as nails one moment yet richly loving when it matters most.

4.5 One Of The Year’s Best Films (out of 5 stars)

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