Keeping tabs on the ever-changing film multiverse can be an incredibly bittersweet endeavor. For every shining Oscar nominee or brilliant diamond in the rough, there may be ten half-as-interesting imitators, fifteen blockbuster cash-ins, and twenty direct-to-DVD atrocities. For the less optimistic of us, it can all start to become just a little bit irksome, like a bottomless mudslide towards an unreachable lowest common denominator. And just as I was about to pull a paper bag over my head and scream in blind exasperation at the nine-thousandth Ben Affleck is Batman tweet, I remembered that I get to review Short Term 12 today.
Short Term 12 is a highly ambitious film, a trait sometimes revered as a kiss of death for independent efforts, but here it proves to be the crown jewel in Destin Cretton’s radiantly woven narrative. The film follows main character Grace (Brie Larson), a young and highly passionate supervisor at a foster care facility for underprivileged or at-risk teens. The facility’s name is borne mainly out of its function – kids come there for approximately one year, get back on their feet to the best of their ability, and hopefully move on to a more stable living environment with an existing guardian or new foster parent. The premise isn’t complicated, but the execution most certainly is.
Within the film’s first hour we learn that Grace is many things — a caretaker, a hard worker, a lover — and like most of us, she does her best to rise to the occasion and fulfill her various life-demands with a smile. On any given day, the staff at Short Term 12 may be seen organizing group activities, giving pep talks, quelling emotional breakdowns, or even physically tackling would-be deserters in their often berserk or emotionally hysterical attempts to escape the premises.
One such episode early on is extremely effective in showing the viewer the magnitude of the subject matter at hand. Shortly after newcomer and newbie employee Nate is shown discussing some basics with Grace and her boyfriend/co-worker Mason, a scrawny red-headed boy comes barrelling across the yard, screaming his lungs out. The gut reaction is to laugh, until you realize the boy is having a breakdown and there’s really nothing funny about it. By the time you conclude that, though, you notice Grace and Mason exchanging a knowing look before jumping into action. Maybe it really is supposed to be funny? Of course, the horror on Nate’s face quickly negates this, and as I watched Grace and Mason track down the scrawny ginger like a well oiled machine, it struck me that maybe the scene isn’t supposed to be anything. It just is. Short Term 12 is a film about learning to cope with events, people, and circumstances as they are, and it’s a theme that is tightly intertwined with the plot at every turn.
Once you’ve let that concept wash over you (and it will, whether you’re aware of it or not), the film opens up and really begins to work its magic. One of the most impressive things about Short Term 12, to me, is its ability to juggle so many different plot threads, and not only link them together but keep every last one of them fresh, interesting, and emotionally affecting. You’ll laugh at Nate’s general awkwardness, you’ll smile through watery eyes as Mason and Grace attempt to harness their love into a working relationship, and the color will literally drain from your face when it’s revealed that a character you thought was making strides has resorted to self-injury. It’s an emotional rollercoaster, but a welcome one, serving as both a compelling and touching stroke of fiction but also an eye-opening peek into what these characters’ non-specific real-life counterparts go through each and every day.
And then there’s the acting. In an odd twist, I don’t find it necessary to spend too much time describing each and every performance simply because they are all so wonderful. Destin Cretton told me in an interview that what really brings a film to life, and makes it a living, breathing organism and not just “watchable,” is when the actors are allowed freedom and room to breathe, and then afforded the chance to uncover new aspects of a character that aren’t necessarily written on the page.
I could go on about how Brie Larson in particular did a phenomenal job (she did), or how John Gallagher Jr. managed to actualize one of the more genuine and real characters I’ve encountered in a film in recent memory, but it wouldn’t be necessary. What’s important here is that everyone seems emphatically onboard with Mr. Cretton’s filmmaking philosophy, and the weight and collective effort of everything that had to come together to make this film feel so alive can not only be seen, but felt. It really is something to behold.
Short Term 12 is the kind of movie that restores your faith in the medium. No work is perfect, and this story — just like any ever told — has its quirks or niggles that didn’t fully sit well with me. That said, the overall emotional response it’s able to imbue in the viewer is such that it’s almost impossible to determine if any perceived shortcomings are even shortcomings at all. In line with the film’s philosophy, they just are. If there’s one thing Short Term 12 can teach us, it’s just that – our circumstances and the world around us may not be changeable, but our interactions with the ones inhabiting it can truly change everything. Of course, that’s just my take-away – go see the film yourself! That way you can reach your own conclusions. I can’t be sure, but for some reason I feel like those involved with Short Term 12’s creation wouldn’t want it any other way.