By Don Simpson | August 20, 2013
Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Writer: Destin Daniel Cretton
Starring: Brie Larson, John Gallagher Jr., Kaitlyn Dever, Keith Stanfield, Stephanie Beatriz, Rami Malek, Alex Calloway, Kevin Hernandez, Lydia Du Veaux, Frantz Turner
Short Term 12 is intended to be a limbo — of sorts — for foster kids, a temporary residence for at-risk kids who unfortunately know nothing other than temporary residences. As you can pretty much guess, the kids of Short Term 12 are emotionally troubled; but their psychological hardships are as diversely represented by writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton as their ethnicities. Some of their emotional scars run so deep that they are expressed with physical lacerations; others while away their time in self-imposed seclusion or repeatedly attempt to run away from it all. Make no mistake, though, they are not “underprivileged,” whatever the heck that means. There is an infinite amount of hope and promise within each and every one of these kids, they just need someone to help them see the bright side of life.
Grace (Brie Larson), Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), Jessica (Stephanie Beatriz) and newcomer Nate (Rami Malek) serve as the daytime guardians for the kids, primarily caused with the task of ensuring their safety. They are not therapists — their role, at least in the eyes of their boss (Frantz Turner), is merely that of babysitters. Because of their personal histories, Grace and Mason choose to go above and beyond their roles as guardians and actually try to help the kids discover their true potential. Grace and Mason are able to see themselves in the kids; this lends Grace and Mason the uncanny ability to make deep and lasting connections with them.
All the while, Grace and Mason are still working on their own emotional baggage. Though they choose not to advertise their relationship while at work, Grace and Mason’s romance has advanced to the stage of cohabitation; but they are still navigating ways to balance their home life with the stressful work environment. When Grace discovers that she is pregnant, she hides that fact from Mason, knowing that he will want to have the baby, while she is fully prepared to have an abortion. A child of abuse, Grace does not want to bring a child into this world; but, despite growing up in a foster home, Mason sees the world much more positively. Grace does not necessarily see it yet, but their time at Short Term 12 is as good of a preparation for parenthood as anyone could expect to get. Grace and Mason have diligently learned how to love and care for the kids; teaching the kids how to express themselves and communicate to others what they are feeling; supporting the kids’ creative and intellectual interests; providing the kids with much needed safety and security. That seems to be exactly what parenting should be about, though most adults never seem to recognize that.
As Grace develops a certain fondness for the newest intake of Short Term 12, Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), she recognizes that Jayden is basically just a younger version of herself. Not only are they both cutters, but they also share a knack for internalizing their feelings, bottling stuff up until they either explode or shut down completely. Both Grace and Jayden have learned that the most effective way to express themselves — and temporarily escape from their problems — is by drawing and journaling. So, sort of like the Ghost of Christmas Past, Jayden forces Grace to come to terms with her past and move beyond the associated psychological hangups. Jayden also brings out the motherly instinct in Grace, a tendency that she has presumably suppressed for most of her adult life.
Short Term 12 presents us with a world in which foster care facilities actually care about the children. This is far from a perfect world — there is still abuse, depression and unwanted pregnancy — but the characters plow through their trials and tribulations with amazing yet sublimely realistic fortitude and grace. In this context, Short Term 12 may sound like a schlocky, feel-good Hollywood movie and that could not be further from the truth. The scenarios and conversations within Cretton’s film shimmer with such a high level of authenticity that I find it nearly impossible to believe that Short Term 12 is not a documentary. This is due in no small part to the amazing ensemble cast and impeccable writing. Brie Larson, for one, is astounding; proving herself to be one of the most talented twentysomething actors working today. The four actors — Kaitlyn Dever, Keith Stanfield, Alex Calloway and Kevin Hernandez — who play the primary kids are quite excellent as well.
A darling of the film festival circuit, Short Term 12 should easily sweep the awards season. Well, at least in a perfect world — and as we all know, this world is far from perfect. Regardless of which films the awards actually go to, one thing is for certain, Short Term 12 reaches a level of storytelling perfection that cinema very rarely reaches.