It’s easy to take for granted the small wonder that is "Short Term 12" and the things it does so incredibly well. After all, this isn’t a big movie with fancy special effects that clearly cost a lot of time and money. It doesn’t have elaborate sets or action sequences. It doesn’t blow you away with showily beautiful cinematography or camera tricks. There’s no big, obvious, grandstanding performance moment that the Academy Awards can point to and trim out for the nominee clip.
No, "Short Term 12" is low on flash, but it’s high on everything that actually matters in a movie. It’s an experience as a raw as a cut to the bone but also as warm as a blanket. With a passing glance, it might not look like there’s a lot here to grab you or blow you away in a conventional, Hollywood manner. But while watching it, writer-director Destin Cretten’s sophomore feature does exactly that with the mere power of its wonderful, rich characters and perfectly told story. And its soul-raising grip lasts long after seeing it.
Grace (the terrific Brie Larson, last seen wringing the most out of an absolutely wasteful one-line role in "Don Jon") is a twenty-something supervisor at Short Term 12, a foster care facility for at-risk children and teens. She works alongside her doting goofball boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), Nate the awkward new guy (Rami Malek, "The Master") and Jessica (Stephanie Beatriz).
Grace is essentially the mom of the house, carefully navigating the fine line between being a friend and being a stern caretaker. She clearly loves the kids and the environment they’ve fostered in the hopes of preparing the troubled teens for the world awaiting them outside the gate. However, there’s also an occasional weariness in Grace’s eyes. After all, this is a place where a calm day still includes chasing down a child frantically making a break for the gate.
The long, stressful days for Grace at Short Term 12 soon get even longer and more stressful. Marcus (Keith Stanfield, making an impressive debut), one of the facility’s older residents, is preparing to leave, but some of his behavior would imply he’s still a little raw for the real world. Meanwhile, a new girl named Jayden (Kaitlin Dever) arrives with a history of abuse, from herself and others, that hits close to home for Grace and brings out her most aggressive, protective instincts.
And while she’s trying to help with all of these problems, she’s trying to cope with her own, namely a child on the way. She tries to heap all of these responsibilities on her own already tired shoulders, much to the frustration of Mason.
If this all sounds really heavy, serious and intimidating, that’s where the magic of "Short Term 12" lies. As the kids say nowadays, it has all of the feels. The movie can shatter your heart into a million pieces but also provide some truly funny, sweet and clever moments in equal measure.
Mason can tell a facility legend about how he crapped himself trailing after a kid on the loose (they’re not allowed to touch the kids outside the premises) in the same film as Jayden sharing a story filled with so much suppressed hurt that it makes me well up a bit just thinking about it. A perfectly set-up and delivered cupcake joke follows almost immediately after a tensely furious temper tantrum.
And somehow, the tone always feels right. The highs and lows ebb and flow naturally, never pushing too hard in any direction and always feeling sincere to the characters and their emotions. None of it feels like drama or comedy. It’s just a sincere look through the window of people experiencing life at its most joyful, painful and all of the places in between.
There’s a moment in the third act where it almost teases going into overdramatic territory, but Cretten and the film gracefully find their way back. No harm, no foul.
Grace is the core of Short Term 12 – the place and the movie – and Larson plays it beautifully, playful and hard, strong and overwhelmed all at the same time. She’s brave but clearly still bruised (she still has scars on her ankle from her troubled childhood), which makes her whole-hearted commitment seem all the braver.
Save the pedestal though; Cretten and Larson don’t turn her into a saint. She's often a bundle of raw edges, but Larson still lets her humanity and effortless charm find their way through. She’s just a good person trying to give others the guiding, reassuring hand she never had – and still isn’t sure how to accept herself.
The audience still gets to know almost all of Grace's kids and her fellow caretakers as well. Each character feels fully fleshed out – Mason toasts his large, warm foster family at a reunion; Marcus has an impromptu rap that opens the quiet young man up about his life – while inhabiting and moving through the narrative with such relaxed, authentic ease. It's rare for a juggling act like this to be so rewarding and still so natural.
Cretten creates a genuine community of real, lived-in people, kids and adults alike battling the endless personal trials of growing up and in need of a parent of any form willing and kind enough to lend a hand or a shoulder. The greatest compliment is that, by the end of the movie, we want to spend more time with these people. We want to see how things turn out and make sure everyone turns out okay.
Short Term 12 may just be a facility, but it feels like a home. And when a movie so seemingly small and unassuming can summon an emotional response that strong and deeply felt, it reminds me what the power of cinema truly is.
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.