If I told you what Short Term 12 is about, you would tell me that it sounds like an after-school special, or that it sounds depressing, or that you don’t need to see another movie that explores those subjects, or that movies suck.
You’d be wrong on all accounts. Writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton’s Short Term 12 handles difficult subject matter with remarkable sensitivity and decency, letting its characters reveal themselves gradually and trusting its performers to provide the requisite emotional punch without resorting to Oscar bait-y moments of high melodrama. It’s a movie about the power of human connection, the importance of being honest with people even when honesty means revealing a devastating part of yourself, the emotional catharsis of surrounding yourself with people who have to find a better life for themselves. It’s funny and sweet and sad and gut-punchingly mighty. Despite the emotionally devastating material at its core, Short Term 12 finds the beauty, or at least the humanity, in people’s worst impulses.
But Cretton unfurls the movie’s tapestry in such a way that to reveal more than fragments of the story would be to rob the movie of its power to surprise, not in a “jump out of your seat” kind of way, but in a “I never expected him/her to act like that” way. Bookended by two scenes in which Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) recounts a delightfully twisty story about the children with whom he works, the story zooms in on a group foster home populated with neglected, abused and otherwise mistreated children and their sympathetic caretakers Mason, Nate (Rami Malek), Jessica (Stephanie Beatriz) and the movie’s star, Grace (Brie Larson).
And oh boy, is Larson a dynamite lead. Grace is an extraordinary, compassionate caretaker, but she has problems of her own, and she’s as flawed as any of the other characters. We root for her because she’s clearly well-intentioned, even when she seems to buried under the weight of the many problems in and around her life. Larson underplays Grace at every turn, graceful (living up to her character’s name, I suppose) but never showy. The brilliance of the performance lies in her wide, round eyes – they’re a perfect match for a character who needs to be gifted at seeing what others don’t. Larson never hits a false note, even in her tricky interactions with the children in the home. She’s equal parts maternal and self-destructive, and it’s breathtaking to behold.
And the kids! As they say, the kids are all right, and far more. Kaitlyn Dever lends the troubled Jayden (she’s bitter about the association with Will Smith’s son) dimension beyond the conventional emo-girl shtick that this character initially seems to adhere to. Her delivery of Jayden’s devastating children’s story about an octopus with a shark friend who eats her legs cuts deep because Cretton wisely leaves the subtext far enough below the surface that it’s on us to figure out what she really means. Elsewhere, Keith Stanfield lays down some fiercely emotional rhymes in one of the movie’s best scenes, as he confesses his demons to Grace in the only way he knows how: rap. Even Alex Calloway makes an impression as Sammy, a scrawny boy prone to running away in fits of rage. Other movies should take lessons from this movie’s nonjudgmental approach to troubled children.
Movies like this, in which children and adults find common ground and learn about themselves through the lens of the other, so often feel calculated to provoke emotional responses to the point of banality. The unvarnished direction and authentic-appropriating cinematography in Short Term 12, along with a script that allows its plot points to accumulate slowly, even realistically, gives the story space to let you figure out its subtleties without trying to force you down a particular path. In a way, the experience of watching the movie mimics the experiences of many of the movie’s characters, who learn about their fellow humans not by prodding them with questions and begging for answers, but by listening and observing, waiting for their true selves to be revealed. Short Term 12 requires a bit of patience: there’s no narration to give you insight into the characters’ thought, only the terrific performances.
I’m sorry I can’t give you more plot specifics about Short Term 12. Actually, though, I’m not sorry, and you won’t be either once you see the movie, which you absolutely should. Short Term 12 fills holes in my heart I didn’t know I had. Next time you’re tempted to whine about how bad movies are these days, go see this one. I think it will change your mind.