Mark Reviews Movies

Short Term 12


3 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Destin Daniel Cretton

Cast: Brie Larson, John Gallagher Jr., Kaitlyn Dever, Stephanie Beatriz, Rami Malek, Keith Stanfield, Alex Calloway, Kevin Hernandez, Lydia Du Veaux, Frantz Turner

MPAA Rating: R (for language and brief sexuality)

Running Time: 1:36

Release Date: 8/23/13 (limited); 9/13/13 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | September 12, 2013

It makes perfect sense that two of the adults who work with at-risk teenagers in the eponymous residential facility in Short Term 12 have had experiences that mirror the kids with whom they work. One is the victim of abuse. Her father, currently on his 10th year in prison, used to physically and sexually abuse her. The other was a "punk kid" who was taken in by a foster family, and in one of the film's most poignant moments, he offers a toast to his foster parents—surrounded by the children they took in and their families—on the event of their 30th wedding anniversary. "Everything good in my life is because of you," he tells them.

They both know what it's like to be in the shoes of the teens they care for on their shifts at the facility. They both know pain of not having what everyone deems to be a "normal" life, the anger that results and can be aimed at whomever happens to be in the room at the moment, and the feeling of hopelessness and helplessness that comes from not knowing what the future holds for them. They are driven to help those who are in similar situations to the ones in which they once were.

We learn that the kids in this place usually stay for about a year while the county figures out what to do with them; some, at the time of the start of the film, have been there for three years. One is about turn 18, at which point he will be sent out into the world on his own. As heartbreaking as the thought of a young man who may or may not be ready for living on his own being forced into the position is, in a strange way, at least he has an obvious deadline—a date on the calendar when he knows that this stage in his life is complete.

The rest of the kids there are in limbo. There's no certainty save for the lack thereof—no guarantee that even the regular routine of the facility will hold. Things that seem certain, such as a weekend visit with a parent or other family member or the toys that one of the kids keeps as a means of coping, are entirely in the hands and up to the whims of others. A parent might not show up to take their child home. A therapist might decide that the toys are a detriment to recovery.

The film, as written and directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, really understands this world and paints us a full picture of it through details both tiny and significant. Note, for example, a moment early in the film when the new guy introduces himself to the group at the prompting of his supervisor Grace (Brie Larson), the film's central figure. Nate (Rami Malek) starts off with his education, his goals, and his desire for "life experience," and then he proceeds to say that he has always wanted to work with "underprivileged kids." One of those kids (named Marcus, played by Keith Stanfield, who later recites rap lyrics he's written about "living not knowing what a normal life's like") doesn't appreciate the term and lets him know in no uncertain terms.

The important detail isn't the scolding Nate gets or even who does it. Instead, it's who does not point out his error. Grace doesn't say anything to Nate about the incident, and the reasons are clear without being stated: She can't diminish the authority he needs to have over their wards, and she knows he has learned his lesson.

Beyond those reasons, though, is an even higher one: At that moment, like every other moment that Grace is on duty, it's the kids that need the attention and support. Her life revolves around this philosophy, and it's incredibly easy for her to live it. The alternative would be for her to concentrate on her own life, which seems to be the last thing she wants.

She has a boyfriend named Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), the co-worker who was raised by a foster family. She learns she's pregnant and, after a moment of contemplation, asks the doctor to schedule an abortion for her. She informs the doctor she was pregnant once before, and we eventually tie that statement to the reason why her father is in jail and why Mason has been waiting—after three years of dating—for her to trust him.

As much as she's tried to forget the past, she cannot, and the arrival of a new resident named Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), whose mother has died and father is having difficulty raising her, presents Grace with a challenge. Jayden is withdrawn, suspicious of authority, and prone to anger when confronted. She also has a history of cutting herself, and Grace understands that, as she has begun to pick at her cuticle with her nail until it starts to bleed. After Grace and Jayden begin sharing some drawing time together, Grace flashes a series of scars on her ankle. "It's impossible to worry about anything else when there's blood coming out of you," she explains, and later Jayden reaches out to Grace about her own problems at home through a story about a lonely octopus and a "friendly" shark that succinctly and wrenchingly sums up the nature of an abusive relationship.

The performances are naturalistic and upsettingly effective, especially Larson, who reaches into the depths of suffering and retrieves a compassionate portrait of a woman who knows she needs help but would rather use her anguish as a means of connecting to those for whom she cares. As she begins to comprehend the ways of Jayden's story mirror her own, Grace, whose life seems to be taking a turn for the better after revealing her pregnancy to Mason, begins a seemingly unstoppable path toward self-destruction.

The stakes are high (Note the bookend anecdotes that Mason tells, especially the finality of the end result of the first story—withheld until asked directly because he doesn't like to think of it—and how it compares to unanswered but optimistic question of the second) but never manipulative. Cretton knows better. The drama is in the characters who find themselves in these situations and not the situations themselves, and quite remarkably, even in the face of the trauma and rage and despair of its characters, Short Term 12 remains hopeful.

Copyright © 2013 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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