The best independent films take their cue from the best literary short stories. They cut through the fat so often found in more commercial fare and focus on the moment, on character. Minimalist in style. Maximum in feeling. Writer/director Destin Cretton’s Short Term 12 is one such film.
Grace (Brie Larson) is happily toiling away with her boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) working together as counselors at a group home for troubled youth, but when an unexpected pregnancy pops up and a deeply disturbed new ward (Kaitlyn Dever) arrives, Grace finds herself at a crossroads still trying to cope with her own dark past.
Brie Larson plays Grace with a breezy charm. She instantly relates to the kids (for reasons we later learn go beyond the standard love of job), and she’s both care-free and deadly serious. There’s so much stuff bubbling up underneath her surface, and Larson is shockingly adept at traversing the slippery slope of her character’s arc. As her boyfriend, Mason, who so desperately wants to dive beneath that surface with her, John Gallagher Jr. (so insufferable on the insufferable Newsroom) comes across as a likeable hipster duffus with a huge heart. He loves telling stories and he connects with the kids because he’s a kid himself, and again we learn later on why he is the way he is. Cretton, as he does with all of the characters circling in Grace’s orbit, reveals backstories bit by bit, not with a self-aware sense of revelation, but with the same casual charm as Grace. He allows us to connect with them through small moments, character revealing details, just as Grace does when working with the kids at the home in her sincere attempts to get through to them.
Cretton could’ve easily played things for melodrama, but he’s a keen observer of life’s nuances and contradictions, the facades children and adults will put up when they can’t cope with the trouble they encounter every day, the stories they tell and the neuroses they develop. The gallows humor. The sarcasm. The acting out. The cutting. There’s one kid who when not clinging to childish mementos literally can’t run fast enough away from that tortured childhood. Another kid puts up a tougher-than-thou bravado only to reveal some of the most heart wrenching rap lyrics you’ll ever hear. The kids struggle with finding appropriate outlets for their emotions, and their colors of rage are tempered through Cretton’s first-hand knowledge having worked in just such a home before he turned to film. There’s no wallowing in misery, though there are miserable acts piercing these kids’ lives. Likewise, there’s no raging against “the system” though he does touch on that slightly through Grace’s anger towards a superior playing politics, but as shown with Mason’s character, sometimes “the system” works just as well as it doesn’t.
Grace, Mason, their peers and the kids are so darn likeable, it’s impossible not to root for them. Grace has lived through things you never really get over…but through the kids and through her love for them…she learns to cope. Some might say she gets too attached to her wards, but she gets attached because someone has to. Short Term 12 is about the long-term prospects of finding those human connections…building a misfit family of your own. With Larson’s winning performance and Cretton’s sensitive direction, it’s a true indie gem that deserves to shine. Both director and star should have a bright path ahead.
Written by David H. Schleicher