It would have been really nice to say Short Term 12 (2013) was the feature writing and directing debut for Destin Cretton. You want a movie like Short Term 12 to be the first outing because it is so genuine and moving that it provides a nice baseline. My biggest fear going in was that they’d try to be cute about the kids and their situation. I was concerned they’d try to make it look like camp with a little dip into the more dramatic stuff when the plot called for it. The source of my concern is the one beat at the end of the trailer where Mason says “Here we go.” It seemed like they might trivialize things. Luckily for all of us, that was the only time that happened in the film. Short Term 12 only takes things lightly enough for its characters to bear the weight and they have a lot of trouble doing that.
Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) and Grace (Brie Larson) are staffers at a foster care facility. “We keep them here until the county decides what to do with them.” Some are there for a matter of months, others, like Marcus (Keith Stanfield), are there for years. Mason and Grace are in a pretty serious relationship, which may be a necessity since they spend most of their time working at the house. There are a few new arrivals at the facility. Nate (Rami Malek) is taking a year off of school to get some life experience–and he’s going to get it–while Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) has been in and out of group homes since her mother died. Their world revolves around a group parenting style that’s as heavy on systematic rules, like demerits for swearing or bad behavior, as it is on face time with the incredibly patient staff. Mason and Grace are the all-stars and both have histories to motivate their patience and care. On top of all of that, Grace finds out she’s pregnant and has to decide what she’s going to do.
This isn’t a plot movie. Perhaps that was obvious. You have Mason and Grace, their relationship and possible child, and a small ensemble of troubled kids stalled in an unpleasant system. Mason and Grace are so unshakably capable at their jobs that the greatest conflict of the movie is their ability to deal with their own issues. And that makes for a very neatly balanced film with the kids’ problems dealt with at the facility and the couple’s problems handled in the off-hours. We see events through their eyes and, because they’re like parents to these kids, I feel the concern when the kids are in danger and feel proud when the kids do something good. I was totally invested in the film from the beginning and never got pulled out.
The credit gets spread around pretty evenly because everyone showed up with their A game. Cretton wrote a great script that was extremely touching and quietly funny. The cinematography with Brett Pawlak was very impressive. There was a lot of hand-held camera work to make it look very real, but also still shots when the focus needed to be on the characters. I just loved the actors. Gallagher was wonderful and charismatic, but if Larson and Stanfield don’t get Oscar attention this year, it’ll be a crime. They brought out so many emotions almost effortlessly. Now I’m going to have to catch up with Larson’s earlier stuff since she’s been in three of my favorite movies this year in Don Jon (2013) and The Spectacular Now (2013). I also have to mention the music by Joel P. West as another huge credit to the film.
I don’t know how I feel about this movie being rated R. It’s basically rated R for swearing and that doesn’t seem right. Are you telling me kids interested in seeing an indie movie like Short Term 12 can’t take a few dirty words? They might struggle with the heavy subject matter, but that’s struggle well spent.
Everything worked and worked well. I really enjoy these new indie movies that have the kind of gentle sadness and simple joy that Short Term 12 has. They tend to put in characterizations that aren’t particularly heroic or noble, but make it seem real. Nothing in the film took me out of the experience except for those moments where I had to daub my eyes to clear out those irritating tears.
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