Short Term 12 (2013)

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Kids with problems, adults too

“Short Term 12” is the name used for a foster care centre in California and the film focuses on two of the staff members, who happen to be lovers, Mason (John Gallagher Jr. of The Newsroom) and Grace (Brie Larson), and some of the troubled kids, particularly Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), an abused girl afraid of her father who has custody, and Marcus (Keith Stanfield), a smart, sensitive black kid who raps and who can’t face the release into the outside world that is coming any minute when he reaches his eighteenth birthday.Reviewers who have already seen this movie have given it raves and for good reason, even if they’ve gone a bit overboard. It pulses with emotion, and that emotion feels genuine. The hook is that Grace, who gives her all in protecting and caring for the youths (as Larson subtly gives her all in the role), has severe problems herself that up to now she has not tended to. Though she tells Mason they’re having a baby, she can’t seem to open up to him further about the things that trouble her in her past. Help comes from Grace. The images are clear and immediate and the music throbs with feeling without being intrusive. Short Term 12 holds onto your heart and won’t let go. It’s a movie full of humanism and authenticity.The down side is that Destin Cretton, who wrote and directed, doesn’t show extraordinary originality in either area — which is not to say he doesn’t show skill. He has great material and rides with it, laying out his essential elements succinctly, and he grabs the viewer firmly and carries him or her along; but the way he ties things up at the end seems too easy and obvious. With such good stuff to work on, it’s a pity he didn’t put more of an original, elegant stamp on it, but instead went for a tossed salad of conventional resolutions and melodramatic story lines, when his scenes are so strong minute-to-minute.

Similar material was dealt with in Jordan Melamed’s 2001 Manic, an important (and bold) early feature lead for Joseph Gordon-Levitt. The difference is in Short Term’s strong focus on Grace and Mason, two twenty-somethings, which makes it easier to relate to than Manic’s concentration on Lyle (Gordon-Levitt), a violent, rageful youth. On the other hand Manic, despite being in a psychiatric youth facility rather than just a foster centre, has much the same cast of young characters, arguably spelled out in more detail. Its artistic dope fiend goth girl and rape victim are combined in Grace and Jayden. Marcus and his conflict with the provocative Latino boy Luis (Kevin Hernandez) embodies elements more intensely explored in Gordon-Levitt’s Kyle. There are good scenes between Grace and Mason at home, including a painful interrupted sex scene, that are touching and warm. On the other hand the greater detail Manic provides of the youths’ personalities and interactions makes Short Term’s depiction of life in the centre appear relatively sketchy.

Short Term 12 provides a warm bath of emotion throughout. When Mason and Grace aren’t pouring out their hearts to each other, or trying not to, one or another of the kids is imploding or weeping, or the scrawny childish Sammy (Alex Calloway) dashing for the front gate. The rule, as vets led by Mason explain in the first scene to staff newbie Nate (up-and-comer Rami Malek), is they can grab and stop a kid making a run for it on the grounds, but once he’s out the gate, they have no right to. But they can follow the kid, and Mason tells Nate a gross tale of his extreme effort tailing a kid on a bus. This seems to go a bit too far when Grace follows Jayden as she runs back to her father’s house — twice. But it’s a key plot point that Grace’s bonding with Jayden helps heal Grace, whose past turns out to be similar to hers, only worse.

Despite Short Term 12’s great appeal, Manic may have the structural edge, by virtue of its sheer lack of any obvious shape or pleasing resolution — an intense inchoate quality that comes along with a greater vérité feel. On the other hand if you want to see a movie that combines a romance with psychological issues and is structured to the Nth degree, Silver Linings Playbook has qualities as a movie that neither Manic nor Short Term 12 can hope to match for all their earnest exposition of troubled youth.

Cretton might have let his movie breathe more by introducing unexpected, irrelevant details. Even though the scene where Mason and Grace attend a celebration for his foster parents has its obvious point of showing his background, the number of other grown up foster kids and the parents themselves are numerous enough to give the scene welcome random elements. On the other hand when Grace runs at night to Jayden’s father’s house, where the girl has been taken against Grace’s wishes, the movie is running away with itself in its obsessive focus on the theme of Jayden’s presence drawing Grace out of her shell. And the parallelism between Grace’s past and Jayden’s present is too clear and obvious. Yet the emotions still feel real, and the acting is uniformly strong, particularly Brie Larson’s in the central role, surely one of the best she’s had thus far. This is one of the most involving and best acted American indie films of the year; it’s just not one of the best written.

Short Term 12 was developed with help from the San Francisco Film Society and debuted at South by Southwest. It  comes out in the UK 1st November 2013.

DIRECTOR: DESTIN CRETTON
WRITER: DESTIN CRETTON
STARS: BRIE LARSON, JOHN GALLAGHER JR., KEITH STANDIELD, RAMI MALEK, ALEX CALLOWAY, FRANZ TURNER, KEVIN HERNANDEZ
RUNTIME: 96 MINS
COUNTRY: USA

Film Rating: ★★★★☆

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