Short Term 12 (2013)
96 min., rated R.
As it's been said, acting is just listening. Brie Larson is one of those best-kept secret talents who has something behind the eyes and anchors every scene she's in with an innate magnetism. Being in the business for 15 years, both in TV and film (2011's "Rampart" and 2012's "21 Jump Street"), and gaining notice for her supporting roles this year alone in "The Spectacular Now" and "Don Jon," Larson really gets her moment to shine here. The 24-year-old actress plays Grace, the head supervisor of Short Term 12, a group home for troubled youths. She's seen it all, from teens who've had experience with the law and those who are at risk to themselves or others. "Remember, you are not their parent; you're not their therapist. You're here to create a safe environment and that's it," Grace tells newly hired counselor Nate (Rami Malek). (Early on, Nate is positioned as the eyes and ears of the audience. He gets off on the wrong foot, referring to the kids as "underprivileged.") Grace is cool and approachable, wearing a strong face and putting her problems aside to not only devote her life to helping these kids but also mess around with them with squirt guns and games. In the role, Larson is simply remarkable, naturally relatable and able to listen and open up to her charges.
When the film isn't just being a day-in-the-life at Short Term 12—the term "level drop" is revealed to be a kind of point system based on the kids' behavior and none of the employees can touch or restrain a kid if he or she leaves the grounds—the crux of the story comes down to the arrival of rebellious Jayden (a heartbreaking Kaitlyn Dever), as well as her interaction and burgeoning friendship with Grace that heals them both. Jayden is a cutter, who feels a great deal of pain under her hard, smartass attitude, and just wants her space before her dad picks her up to go live with him. Writer-director Cretton invests his audience in the two girls' friendship with naked emotion and subtlety before their great moment of shared catharsis that still doesn't feel rushed, forced or overly severe. Because of Jayden, Grace is forced to confront her personal "stuff" with her own father. There's also scruffy co-worker Mason (a lovable John Gallagher Jr. from HBO's "Newsroom"), who's also Grace's live-in boyfriend, but they try to keep their relationship under wraps at work. Grace learns she's pregnant early on and unsure of what she should do, even though Mason loves her dearly. One of the kids, Marcus (impressive newcomer Keith Stanfield), also has a motivated role in Grace's life. He's not a bad kid—none of them are—but Marcus, about to turn 18 and passionate about writing rap music, might not be ready to leave the center. Some of the most alternately joyful and devastating scenes involve a counselor with Marcus and Jayden, who, respectively, performs a rap song he wrote and reads a personal children's story about a shark and an octopus.
Written and directed by Cretton, "Short Term 12" never feels like a glib, judgy Afterschool Special, nor is it depressing or mawkish, but an accessible, compassionate drama made with a sense of hope and tender empathy, never pity, for its troubled characters. The hand-held camera work also extends to the pervasive air of understated authenticity, being executed with a clear-eyed naturalism and skillful immersion without annoying. The filmmaker draws from what he knows and it's immediately telling that Cretton has worked as a social worker in a facility like Short Term 12, seeing all different walks of life. It's exciting (and often very rare) to find a film by a fresh, young filmmaker that doesn't only feel true to life but never forgets to entertain. "Short Term 12" never strikes a wrong, false note — not in the astute direction, the lived-in production design, or the authentic tone of the writing and performances. So captivating and overpowering in nearly every low-key, impassioned scene, this small-scale indie gem flew under the radar, but it should not be overlooked. It hits home and sits with you long-term.