Review: “Short Term 12” (****½)

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Editor’s Note: Today marks a special occasion for me. I first put a bug in the ear of Lucy Doughty about writing for Reel Georgia many moons ago, and today we publish her first piece with us. “Short Term 12” is a remarkable film that won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Prize at SXSW earlier this year. I saw it at Sidewalk, where I was moved and impressed enough to have awarded it the full five star rating. Lucy’s review is written as beautifully as the film plays out, and I look forward to reading everything she’ll write for us in the future. Even though her reviews will make mine look as though I’ve compiled them using Alphabet soup, I’m thrilled to have such a gifted wordsmith on board. -CM

John Gallagher, Jr., Brie Larson, and Rami Malek star in “Short Term 12”

“Short Term 12” premiered in its first form as first-time writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton’s Master’s thesis project at Sundance in 2009. A friend told Cretton he’d be a fool to attend Sundance without a feature length script prepared for the then twenty-minute short. “So I wrote one,” he said. The short won the Jury Prize, and Cretton began crafting his feature debut, which released after his second movie, “I Am Not A Hipster,” did in 2012. The result captures a season in the lives of the young staff and residents of a teen foster care facility. Rooted in Cretton’s own experience on a group home staff, “Short Term 12” offers a gripping and often raw look at the transformative power of trust and vulnerability.

The film introduces staff member Nate (Rami Malek) on his first day and immediately exposes both Nate and the audience to the volatile nature of daily life in a home for at-risk youth. The kids are there for different and often undisclosed reasons and stay for varying periods of time. Among others we meet Sammy, a small, imaginative boy who takes off running when upset, screaming and underwear-clad. We meet Marcus, who must leave the center on his fast-approaching eighteenth birthday. And we meet Jayden, a sarcastic and brooding Short Term 12 veteran whose unpredictable interactions with Grace, a supervising staff member played by Brie Larson, develop into a relationship that changes each of their lives forever.


Larson caught Cretton’s eye with her roles in the television series “United States of Tara” (2009-2011) and in Oren Moverman’s “Rampart” (2011). He was right to believe in her. She leaves nothing to be desired; her characteristic balance of humor and intensity is trumped only by her killer taste in sweaters. Grace knows the boundaries of her job: “You are not their parent. You are not their therapist. You are here to create a safe environment, and that’s it.” But her manner with the kids, marked by water gun wake-up calls and heartfelt birthday parties, asserts there are no boundaries on her care and compassion.

Grace’s boyfriend and fellow staff member, Mason, played by John Gallagher, Jr. (“The Newsroom”), charms the children and audience alike with his inimitable sense of humor and exaggerative storytelling. “This is gonna seem fake, but I promise you, it’s not. Grace will vouch for me,” says Mason. “It depends. If you tell it right,” Grace retorts. The film chronicles the chances Grace and Mason take, both on the kids and on each other. Our understanding of their life together unfolds as naturally as their banter does, carefully revealing the scope of Grace’s secrets and the depth of Mason’s desire not only to know them, but to protect her from them. Their comfortable chemistry is punctuated by arresting silences; the young couple struggles with the disparity between the ease of true love and the labor of fear. This battle reveals a common ground between Grace, Mason, and the troubled youth they spend their days encouraging: their fears—of transparency, of abandonment, of failure—are the same. That we readily find ourselves on the same ground is the film’s crowning triumph.

Brie Larson and Kaitlyn Dever play Grace and Jayden in “Short Term 12”
The instrumental soundtrack, composed and performed by Joel P. West, is a crucial companion to the film’s visual styling. When Cretton uses pictures on the kids’ bedroom walls to convey history or contrasts dark subject matter with overwhelming natural light, West completes the tone with generous cello phrases or staccato ukulele. Perhaps the most distinguishing aspects of Brett Pawlak’s cinematography are its awareness of the emotional distance between two characters and how that distance is conveyed using space in the scene. The closer we feel to a character, the closer the shot allows us to be. The risk of over-executing such cohesion is very real, but Cretton well avoids it.

As versatile as the human condition it portrays, “Short Term 12″ is an achievement. It invites us to run, screaming and underwear-clad, across a field as open as we can stand to be with each other—but it reminds us that sometimes, we need to stand still in order to reach what we’re chasing.

4.5 out of 5 stars.
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