Short Term 12
Opens Fri., Sept. 6 at Seven Gables. Rated R. 96 minutes.
Expanding his prior short film, Destin Cretton’s affecting little indie drama is set in a foster home where troubled young residents age out at 18. Deprived of real parents, they grudgingly look to staff members like Grace and Mason for guidance. One minute they’re docile and grateful for the affectionate rule-givers, the next they’re throwing tantrums or fleeing the campus. (Off the grounds, staffers can only follow the kids and try to talk them back to the facility.) Both in their 20s, Grace (Brie Larson) and Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) are a couple, a fact they try to disguise at work—though it seems an open secret among the kids.
As it lurches from crisis to outburst to revelations of past abuse, there’s a kind of amped-up naturalism to Cretton’s film. Normal kids from loving homes wouldn’t exhibit such behavior, and the whole point of this facility is to shelter damaged teens with no other place to go. So of course they have unhappy stories to share—or conceal, as is the case with 15-year-old Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), a surly new arrival with much eyeliner and considerable attitude. With her sketchbook and wrist scars, the girl arouses a protective, almost sisterly instinct in Grace, who also projects her own past traumas, gradually revealed, upon Jayden. “I didn’t think about it until I met you,” the counselor tells her charge. Grace is less in command than it seems, and her wavering authority gives the film a certain kinship to Half Nelson.
Ever-decent Mason, the thinnest-drawn character here, is patient and understanding until he’s not. (“You won’t let me in,” he implores Grace.) Several kids have various teary episodes, but the story boils down to Grace’s secret—two of them, actually—and the need for everyone involved to achieve catharsis and healing. But what else would you expect but a therapy movie in such a therapeutic setting?
That the film never loses your goodwill is a credit first to Larson (United States of Tara, Rampart), who convincingly guides Grace from poise to panic, and second to Cretton’s handling of his likable young cast. Cretton (I Am Not a Hipster) isn’t far along in his career, so we can expect his writing to improve. And he gains extra points for the film’s sweet coda. Short Term 12 may not surprise the viewer, but it convinces you of the need for foster care and of the burdens placed upon those who run that overtaxed system.