Feel everything – Short Term 12 review

Short Term12

By Simon Miraudo
December 17, 2013

Teenagers – like eternal adolescents Fiona Apple and Cameron Crowe – just feel so much, and Destin Daniel Cretton channels that emotional intensity into his alternately sorrowful and euphoric Short Term 12. Taking place over a tumultuous few weeks, it tracks the trials and tribulations of the staff at a foster-care facility, as well as their young charges. (The bland, fittingly depressing title comes from the specific, short-term-stay precinct where the action takes place.)

Inspired by the writer-director’s own time spent volunteering at a home for at-risk teens – and based on his 2009 short film of the same name – it explores the lofty highs and disheartening lows felt by a makeshift family of misfits dealing with its members’ tortured pasts. Cretton goes about his task with such tenderness and compassion – his camera unobtrusive yet intimate – it’s impossible to not want to meet his movie with what the aforementioned Crowe would describe as “a hurricane of love.” (It also helps us forgive the handful of instances in which the otherwise understated screenplay stretches believability.)

Short Term 12

Brie Larson, playing twenty-something caretaker Grace, is a big reason for Short Term 12‘s success. Though she’s impressed in previous performances (as the spunky daughter in United States of Tara, and a good-humoured high schooler in 21 Jump Street), she has in my mind now catapulted ahead of her contemporaries. Grace, barely older than her wards, earns respect with her no-nonsense approach and infinite patience; her understanding that temper tantrums will pass – and aren’t personal – help her commit to bringing the more distressed kids back from the brink, regardless of how viciously they attack her or how often they spit at her. That the baby-faced Larson can convince in these sequences is a reminder that acting, at its finest, needs no bells and whistles to astound, captivate, and move.

Despite the emotional turbulence within the walls of Short Term 12, Grace maintains composure and order, giving these kids a safe environment away from the cruel outside world. (The logline for the original short proclaimed, “It’s about kids and the adults who hit them.”) We begin the story on the first day of new supervisor Nate (Rami Malek). He fails to ingratiate himself after revealing to the group that he’s always wanted to work with “underprivileged kids;” a designation the troubled and soon-to-be-released Marcus (stunning newcomer Keith Stanfield) doesn’t appreciate.

Short Term12

Much better equipped for the job is Mason (go-to nice-guy John Gallagher Jr.), Grace’s long-time boyfriend. Their relationship proves to be the strongest Grace has ever held, though it’s endangered by new intake Jayden (the magnetic Kaitlyn Dever). A rebel and also kindred spirit of Grace’s, she brings to the surface long-buried feelings in our heroine. Later, Grace makes several discoveries of fairly seismic proportions, and her fragile state-of-mind nearly crumbles as a result.

As Grace unfolds, Short Term 12 heads into darker territory, and brings us to a climactic moment that delivers the picture’s one true misstep. (When Grace picks up a baseball bat with the intention of seeking vengeance, Cretton unwisely ventures into Death Wish territory.) It’s a brief stumble in what is otherwise a note-perfect experience. There are countless other sequences that more than make up for it: Jayden revealing her personal turmoil by way of a haunting children’s tale; Marcus spitting vitriol at his parents through an a capella rap; Mason toasting his foster parents on their 30th anniversary; Grace begging a superior to listen to her suspicions about an abusive parent. Sufferers of ‘Stendhal syndrome’ – that singularly wonderful and hopelessly human disorder in which people confronted with particularly beautiful artworks become dizzy and often faint – beware: Short Term 12 takes us back to that teenage place, and makes us feel so much too.

5/5

Check out Simon Miraudo’s other reviews.

Short Term 12 arrives in Australian cinemas December 26, 2013. It plays the Perth International Arts Festival March, 2014.

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