Every time I bump into a film like Short Term 12, I can’t stop thanking the cinematic gods for reminding me why I fell in love with cinema and why I got myself into pursuing a screenwriting career in this crazy industry. It's comforting to know that when your senses are about to go numb after watching the latest mega-blockbuster with a power house backing its exposure and calculating every step to its success, there’s a small indie film ready to bring you back to life with no power other than the quality of its storytelling and the ability to touch you deeply inside.
Writer/director Destin Cretton conjures up a small miracle of a film, inspired by his own real life experience as member of line staff in the foster care system. The film’s title refers to the type of facilities designed to host foster kids for no longer than twelve months before finding them a home.
The story focuses on Grace (Brie Larson), a young supervisor at one of these short term 12 homes as she copes with the emotional rollercoaster of working in such a place while she deals with the inner demons of her troubled past, lurking around the corner and threatening to resurface.
Grace is a complex, well-rounded character who’s everything to these kids: mother, caretaker, friend and confidant. She pores her entire soul into what’s clearly a life mission rather than just a job. Her boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) shares exactly the same passion and it’s impossible not to see how these two are soul-mates both on the job and at home.
But the arrival of Jayden, a girl haunted by a story of physical abuse, awakens dark memories in Grace’s mind right as she finds out she’s pregnant. Overwhelmed by these old (and yet fresh) wounds, Grace is driven to the edge and risks jeopardizing her relationship with Mason and her career at the foster home irrevocably.
Despite what sounds like heavy and depressing material, Destin Cretton treats such delicate and dramatic topics without an ounce of melodrama and actually infuses the whole script with sophisticated humor that never feels forced but always perfectly integrated and balanced with the heart-wrenching moments.
It’s a rare gift to be able to portray such harsh realities with naturalism and yet entertain the audience with heart-warming laughs and genuine tears. This film succeeds at capturing the essence of life with all the emotional ups and downs that often occur within a single day and does so in such a seemingly effortless and authentic way you can’t help but feeling uplifted by these people’s stories.
What makes the film’s brilliant script and confident direction shine through is the stunning cast, led by the career-affirming performance of Brie Larson. If you’re still criminally not familiar with the outstanding talent of this young woman, I invite you to drop anything you’re doing, look up her filmography and start catching up with her amazing work.
Even if mostly in supporting roles both in film and television, she’s already managed to prove that she just gets it. She’s one of those natural talents who can deliver any range and who doesn’t act but becomes her character.
Short Term 12 finally gives her a chance to gain the well-deserved spotlight and catapult her into stardom, though I’m confident she’ll never get lost in any of the typical Hollywood bullshit. She’s one of those who lives and breathes her craft, not fame.
Brie Larson’s spectacular turn is aided by the astounding performances of her supporting cast. John Gallagher Jr. of Broadway and TV’s The Newsroom fame couldn’t have been a more perfect match in the role of Mason. His brightness and huge heart leap off the screen and he’s the film’s relentless source of humor.
After his first appearance on screen, you know you just want to hug him and become his best friend. He also delivers one of the film’s most touching scenes with a superb speech to celebrate his foster parents’ wedding anniversary. Rami Malek also needs mention for his brilliant stint as Nate, the new staff member in training who has a lot to learn about what it means to work at a short term 12 home. His comedic and dramatic timing are an absolute delight.
Last but not least, the film’s artistic accomplishment couldn’t have been complete without the right casting picks for the foster home kids. Kaitlyn Dever as new entry Jayden, Alex Calloway as borderline autistic Sammy and Keith Stanfield as tormented but good-hearted free styler Marcus are all scene-stealers.
Stanfield in particular delivers a heart-breaking moment when Marcus (about to turn 18) is bound to depart the facility, but clearly isn’t ready to abandon the only place where he’s ever felt loved. He performs his newest piece of free style, summing up all the bleakness of his past when he used to be beaten up by his mother and forced to sell crack on the street. All of these tiny special moments make the film unique in the way it speaks to the audience.
In the end, it's all a celebration of these kids and their right to a normal life and to being loved.
As I left the BFI London Film Festival’s screening of Short Term 12, the lyrics of a beautiful tune by the very underrated British alternative rock band The Veils promptly came to mind: “We’ve nowhere left to disappear, there’s nowhere left to go around here, and so we hold each other dear, us Godless teenagers.”