SXSW FILM 2013
By Linc Leifeste | March 21, 2013
Director: Destin Cretton
Writer: Destin Cretton
Starring: Brie Larson, John Gallagher Jr., Kaitlyn Dever, Keith Stanfield, Rami Malek, Kevin Hernandez, Alex Calloway, Stephanie Beatriz, Lydia Du Veaux, Frantz Turner
Short Term 12 is a pitch perfect film, consummately scripted, flawlessly cast, impeccably acted and adroitly paced. A heart-wrenching yet life affirming story of broken children (and formerly broken children who are now fractured young adults) stumbling through the wreckage of their lives trying to establish some semblance of control, the perpetually unloved defensively casting about for any taste of love. It’s not something you’ll hear me say often but the film struck me as nearly flawless in its look, feel and execution. Powerful stuff, it’s emotional impact stuck with me for days. That said, as the film rolled around in my head, there was some minor hesitation on my part, a slight reservation holding me back from fully embracing the idea of cinematic storytelling perfection. Call me cynical (I’ll answer to that) but all of the film’s main characters seem almost too purely sympathetic, flawless other than as a result of the damage done by unexamined others, who through their facelessness serve as a type of disposable “bad guy” to the wounded characters’ loveable “good guys.” But I quibble. This is a magical, amazing piece of filmmaking.
Grace (Brie Larson) and Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) are responsible for overseeing a large group of at-risk children in a short-term juvenile foster care home. Most of the kids are there for periods under twelve months and they have to leave by the age of 18, hence the name Short Term 12. While most of the children don’t seem to gravitate towards violence, these are youth with serious emotional problems: depression, OCD, suicidal tendencies and learning disorders. As well as spending days together in incredibly stressful and trying occupational endeavors, Grace and Mason are also discreetly in a serious relationship, on its surface a recipe for disaster.
Early on, we see Grace and Mason seemingly working in perfect tandem to gently guide, restrain and assist youth like Marcus (Keith Stanfield), a withdrawn, emotionally scarred 18-year old on the verge of being forced out and terrified by the idea and Sammy (Alex Calloway), an emotionally and socially stunted young boy who relies on stuffed animals to help him make it through the day and is prone to sudden mad dashes to escape. As well, they’ve got a new hire, Nate (Rami Malek), to train. Overworked and almost surely underpaid, it’s clear that Grace and Mason have a love for their wards and a love for each other but it’s a love that the nature of their careers constantly tests.
As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Grace comes from a background no different than many of the kids she is trying to help. And when Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), a young girl with deeply seeded anger control issues and prone to cutting herself, is shuffled off to the center by her irresponsible father, Grace sees a younger version of herself and all of the old wounds that she thought had scarred over are reopened, putting her at risk of losing her self-control and everything she cares about.
While there are any number of amazing performances turned in (John Gallagher Jr., Kaitlyn Dever, Alex Calloway, Kevin Hernandez) I can’t say enough about Larson’s beautiful turn as Grace, perfectly embodying a vacillating combination of damaged fragility and scarred indifference. But her performance is easily rivaled by Stanfield’s emotionally devastating Marcus, a young man whose level of creativity and intelligence is only rivaled by the level of despair and fear an uncaring world has created in him. Writer/director Cretton displays impeccable timing as he masterfully pulls back layer after layer from each character, until ultimately their fragile and damaged hearts are revealed and in the process I came to unashamedly love each of them in proportion to the depths from out of which they’ve managed to climb.
Also see Dave Campbell’s 10/10 review.