Winner of the Audience and Grand Jury Awards at SXSW in March, writer/director Destin Cretton’s Short Term 12 is a rare and beautiful film containing moments that will make you laugh, cry, render you speechless, take your breath away, and then leave you with a smile.
The film’s title comes from the name of the group home that serves as the story’s central setting. The facility known as Short Term 12 serves as a foster home to troubled youth, victims of abuse, kids who have been forgotten, abandoned or otherwise left behind by their parents. On top of this many of the foster kids suffer from mental illness, making their behavior that more unpredictable.
Brie Larson delivers a spot on performance as the introverted and complicated, Grace, head supervisor over the facility and its young tenants. Grace struggles with her own demons of the past while trying to create a better future for the kids during the short time they are in her care. With the help of her ever patient and understanding partner and co-worker, Mason (Jason Gallagher, Newsroom) – along with a new staff member (Rami Malek) – they work to hold the facility and each other together. While each of the youthful characters in this ensemble cast is memorable for their individual endearing idiosyncrasies, it is the juxtaposition of soon to be 18-year-old Marcus’s (Keith Stanfield) impending departure with the sudden arrival of a challenging new intake named Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) that really serves to move the narrative forward to its eventual climax.
Jayden’s volatile outlook and impulsive behavior will have you constantly fearful of what she will do next and weather those actions will hurt her or someone else. Despite her erratic tendencies, there is a clear affinity shared between Jayden and Grace, and her arrival impacts Grace’s life in ways she could not have anticipated. In another corner of this mesmerizing world Cretton has created there is Marcus (Stanfield). As he attempts to prepare himself for life beyond foster care, there is a heart breaking scene in which he shares a rap he’s recently written with Mason, who keeps the beat going on the drums as Marcus recites the verses.
By the time he comes the last poetic and heart wrenching line of the song it is impossible not to be griped by his performance as he proclaims the finale with conviction, “Look into my eyes so you know what it’s like. Look into my eyes so you know what it’s like. Look into my eyes so you know what it’s like, to live a life not knowing what a normal life’s like.” Cretton incorporates music into the storyline in order to create a heightened since of emotion. Another fascinating element worth noting is that Stanfield actually composed the lyrics to the rap his character performs here. This is one of the many elements contributing to the level of realism evoked and the genuine quality of the film.
When choosing to make a film that approaches difficult material like this, one of the greatest challenges is balancing the light with the heavy. Cretton does this by creating flawed yet likable characters, and sprinkling bits of humor into even the most dramatic of scenes. It’s a film that is as unpredictable as it’s characters, and one that approaches the idea of the human capacity for love, understanding and empathy as a means for making a difference in the lives of others.
Short Term 12 proves that it is possible to create a story comprised of both a tightly structured narrative with a larger purpose, a universal message containing lessons about life we could all afford to learn. What’s more is he accomplishes this without resorting to melodramatic sentiments. This is poignant, emotionally raw, deeply moving, and wonderfully human film. You’ll walk away feeling as though you’ve obtained some secret knowledge of the world.