Skip This Weekend's New Movies for 'Short Term 12'
This weekend’s new film releases leave a lot to be desired. Unless you’re a 1D fan who’s seeing This is Us multiple times, your only other options are the the Eric Bana thriller Closed Circuit or the Ethan Hawke-Selena Gomez action flick Getaway. But we’d like to suggest another film released last week, that’s been flying a little under the radar—and deserves so much more attention.
Short Term 12, written and directed by Destin Cretton, focuses on the lives of the staff and residents of a short-term foster care facility for at-risk teens. Before you prejudge the concept as either boring or sanctimonious, we can assure you that this film is neither. Short Term 12 is an emotionally engaging film, due in large part to the powerhouse performances throughout the film.
The film opens with a counselor Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), welcoming newbie staff member Nate (Rami Malek) to the facility with his own first-day story—one that involved a very long day and a couple of bad tacos—as Grace (Brie Larson), his girlfriend and the facility’s supervisor listens to the oft-told tale. As his story builds to its climax, a young resident busts out the doors and runs for the gate. The staff can’t touch the kids once they’re a foot off the property, so Mason and Grace sprint for the road with Nate joining them. As the three sit on the grass with the patient in a hold, Mason continues his story as if what just happened—didn’t. In other words, it’s just another day at the Short Term 12.
We meet several patients at the facility, besides Sammy the runner (Alex Calloway): There’s Marcus (Keith Stanfield), an older teen who’s about to be termed out of the foster system, and is reluctant about leaving. Brooding newcomer Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) turns out to be a cutter acting out against her father after her mother’s death.
We see in Grace a passionate champion for these kids. She takes the time to become their friend and adviser when needed, but not take things too personally when all hell breaks loose as they often do. Mason proves to be just as caring for the patience—his laid-back demeanor and humor balancing Grace’s quiet and tough attitude. As a team, the two work well together. On a particularly bad morning, when Jayden’s father neglects to pick her up on her birthday, she smashes a cupcake into Grace’s face. Mason disarmingly asks Grace in the middle of the episode, “So how’s my cupcake?”
Grace is not without her own demons, and Jayden’s arrival triggers memories, emotions from her own past, which jeopardizes her future with Mason and at Short Term 12.
Each of the actors has a chance to shine in Cretton’s well-crafted script and well-paced direction. Stanfield and Dever give a depth to the “brokenness” of kids they play. Gallagher is terrific as Grace’s patient boyfriend who begs her to confide in him emotionally. But it’s Larson’s performance that’s both subtle and revelatory. As Grace, she keeps Mason and the audience at a distance as if to wall herself off from the world and all its pain. But when Jayden trusts Grace enough to read her a fairy tale about a shark who eats an octopus one leg at a time (and replace shark with daddy), she becomes determined to “rescue” Jayden. What we’re not sure of until the very end, is whether Grace’s own history will force her over the legal line.
While the film still sanitizes life at a group foster facility (we’re pretty sure it’s more gritty and explosive than Cretton’s version, and not all staff members can be that nice), there are so many great moments, both humorous and heartbreaking, throughout the film. Already a darling of the film festival circuit (taking home both the Audience and Grand Jury awards at SXSW this year), Short Term 12 has the potential to be this year’s little film that could—if only more people would skip the wide-release mediocre offerings and seek this one out instead.