Written and Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton
There's something so simple about how beautiful Short Term 12 is. It doesn't beg for your approval or squeeze pity out of you with its frank subject matter. It expresses itself effortlessly with a drum-tight screenplay and a wonderfully eclectic collection of performances. Set in an unfamiliar setting unknown to American cinema, its story feels wholly original, but its voice confident and vision totally clear, able to find the sweetness within the troubled lives it displays. It's a textbook independent film, but it isn't filled with the same pompous intellectual superiority that so many low-budget, character driven movies can have. It's equal parts sad and funny, occasionally at the same time. Lead by an impeccable stand-out performance from Brie Larson, Short Term 12 stands alongside The Act of Killing as not only my favorite movies of the summer but also of the entire year.
The place Short Term 12 is a facility for foster children where dozens of them are held and cared for by a group of twenty-somethings, some of which used to be foster children themselves. The unofficial matriarch of this unorthodox household is Grace (Larson), who has an uncanny ability for connecting with these troubled, often abandoned children. Grace works alongside Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), who is her right hand man inside Short Term 12, and her devoted boyfriend outside of it. The two act as both stand-in parents and wacky teachers for all of these kids, many of which have had a history of abuse and neglect. Within this world, the facility is graced with a new counselor named Nate (Rami Malek), who has come to help Mason and Grace. Nate learns pretty early on that becoming part of the Short Term 12 family takes a lot of patience and skill. It's not difficult to get on these children's bad sides.
Among the kids is Marcus (Keith Stanfield), a quiet but intense teenager. He is soon turning eighteen, which means his tenure at Short Term 12 will be coming to a close. Marcus is tall and imposing, with a brewing temper that flashes out violently when provoked. But Grace and Mason encourage his creativity, his skills with rap lyrics and his individual style. Marcus is then able to channel these platforms of expression therapeutically. There is also the facility's newest intake, Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), an incredibly moody teenaged girl with a history of cutting herself. Jayden's father is a friend of a friend of Short Term 12's manager, Jack (Frantz Turner), who only wants Jayden staying there during the week - he will pick her up every weekend. Grace is warned about Jayden's attitude, and is met with her abrasiveness full blast when she first arrives. But Grace is able to tap into her one form of vulnerable demonstration, drawing, is able to get her to come out of her rough shell and engage with others.
Jayden's case strikes Grace particularly, since her possibly abusive relationship with her father brings up memories of her own troubled past. Grace finds herself thinking of moments in her life that she had longed buried in the back of her mind and these revelations have serious ramifications on her relationship with Mason. Mason is ever devoting and willing to stick it out with her, even when she becomes an emotional sinkhole. When Grace goes to the doctor and learns that she and Mason are going to have a baby, she doesn't wait a single minute before making an appointment for an abortion. Mason's love is devout, but he worries that Grace will never truly trust him because of her past with men. He implores her to take the advice that she herself gives the children every day: tell someone about all of the mess you have inside your head.
The arc of the character of Grace in Short Term 12 is so deceptive, very small in terms of what's on the page of the script, but nearly endless when considering the array of emotions she feels throughout the film. Brie Larson, who's been on the cusp of movie-stardom for the last few years, is finally given the role of a lifetime and delivers a performance that is a true testament to the power of screen acting. It's both subtle and powerful, some parts sweet and other parts violent. It's a performance that should make her a household name, and hopefully enough people see Short Term 12 to make that happen. The related notes between her troubled past and that of the children is never played for browbeaten lesson-teaching, but instead the organic evolution of a character. Not since 2008's Rachel Getting Married have I seen a movie that felt so unlike a written story, as if it's wide array of emotions within such a short amount of time make it too impossible to be fiction.
As the jokester Mason, Gallagher Jr. is exceptionally sweet and the main source of humor throughout. His chemistry with Larson in various settings adds several layers to their relationship, each one seeming organic even as they contradict each other. He really makes you believe that Mason is fully committed to the emotionally vacant Grace. Stanfield and Dever, the two children of which the most screentime is devoted, lead a powerful ensemble of child actors as the occupants of Short Term 12. Stanfield, brooding and intense, and Dever, childish and confrontational, showing the various extremes and effects of broken childhoods. As Nate, a character that is almost solely character proxy, Remi Malek brings more humanity than is necessary, thus creating what I found to be one of the most surprisingly enjoyable parts of the movie. His reactions match ours.
This is the second feature film from writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton, but his first major breakthrough. He's directed a handful of shorts, including one that was also called Short Term 12 that I can only imagine was some form of prelude to this beautiful film. Like Ain't Them Bodies Saints filmmaker David Lowery, Cretton is part of an exciting new group of young filmmakers that both know there cinematic influences, while also retaining their own strong voice. Cretton's delicate handling of these heartbreaking performances shows a storytelling wisdom matched only by the true contemporary masters like Alexander Payne and Paul Thomas Anderson, but his camerawork (with cinematographer Brett Pawlak) is easily influenced by the twenty-first century independent film aesthetic (Dare I say its name? Alright, fine. Mumblecore), weaving a wonderful cinematic combination of homage and a refreshingly brilliant screenplay that understands the subtlety of good dialogue and characterization. If Short Term 12 is the calling of the end of the Summer movie season, I can't think of a better conclusion.