By: Daniel Reynolds
It’s easy this time of year for films to get lost in the shuffle of the season’s final barrage of big name sequels, franchisees, and award-bait movies. Not to be lost underfoot comes a small film called Short Term 12. Referring to it as small feels somehow belittling, as if it’s a trifle, something to be tossed aside. On the surface, adding up all of its pieces doesn’t help: it is directed by largely unknown Destin Cretton (he made a movie called I Am Not A Hipster, so, yeah), and stars actors you may only know from random TV show appearances. Glancing through the film’s synopsis suggests a plot involving young social workers and at-risk kids. Oh, you think, it’s one of those films: big ideas, heart-on-sleeve emotions, precociousness out the yin-yang. In truth, Short Term 12 is that, but it is also brave and warm; it is a film both heart rending in its smallness, and enveloping in its innate bigness.
Organized at first as a series of vignettes, Short Term 12 introduces us to the twenty-somethings working at a California based foster care facility. As their manager remarks, they are line employees tasked with handling a group of kids staying in their house for a period of time, long or short, up until they are 18. To learn the ropes we start with Nate (Rami Malek), earnestly and awkwardly starting his first day, and meet the rest of the friendly group as they wheel in. There’s Jessica (Stephanie Beatriz, always tough) and Mason (John Gallagher Jr), the shaggy haired optimist and amateur story teller, and finally Grace (Brie Larson), aptly named, the anchor of the group. But it is not enough to see them yakking with each other, there are kids that need them. And, as if on cue upon the film’s opening, one such kid, Sammy, comes screaming out the door as a siren sounds. Now, the film appears to be saying, you know what we’re dealing with.
And so it goes. There’s Marcus (Keith Stanfield), the angry soon-to-be 18 year old hiding his terror behind a scowl; the playful Luis (Kevin Hernandez), an able troublemaker, and finally Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), with an ominously scratched ‘why?’ on her hand, and a deviously sharp wit. The kids are survivors but they don’t want your pity (as Nate quickly learns in a cringe inducing scene where he announces his desire to work with underprivileged kids). As with any film built around children, the established world is a small one. Outside the building’s walls are more complex thoughts, deep emotional scars and baggage that isn’t as easy to move as the interim name of the facility suggests. The kids’ world is shrunk to a manageable size by the staff, and so goes the film. With agile camera work, Cretton builds a lived-in intimacy through design and immediacy; we see children’s rooms filled with frayed rugs, beloved tchotchkes, decorated doors. There’s a cool down room with an inflatable dog and the faintest of red-brown stains on the carpeted walls. For a tiny world like this, it is the details that matter to these kids and to us. Short Term 12 excels at this kind of small world specificity.
Naturally, the larger world rears its head. As our protagonist, Larson’s Grace is seen as an effortless pillar of strength, but her life is also filled with hurt. Like many complicated pasts, it comes to us in whispers. Shouted loud and clear though: we learn quite quickly that Grace is pregnant. For a young woman surrounded by sadly broken kids, it is clear the idea of motherhood to Grace is an impossible future. For those of us who know Larson only as the au pair or Abed’s brief partner in nerdery, her work here as Grace is startling. Larson, like her character, deserves a greater chance at success, a bigger stage, or at least a bigger platform to announce her talent. With her expressive eyes and moony face, hers is a performance of charm and warmth that suggests at inner pain without devolving into ugly histrionics. There has been the faintest mention of an Oscar nomination for Larson’s work. I don’t think she’ll get it, but then, like Grace, she’s bound to feel under appreciated in her time.
For his effort, Crettin achieves a careful balance between the optimism of the future and the despair of damaged and lost youth. Inspirational, emotionally fraught movies like Short Term 12 are such delicate acts of humanism. There is a constant need to weigh what the film decides to show against an audience’s inborn cynicism. Can anyone really help these kids? Will a pep talk and a few hugs change their lives? You keep expecting someone to remark that it’s the kids that end up having more effect on the adults than the other way around. I call it the Radio corollary. We roll our eyes because of its overt sentimentalism. We don’t believe it.
Short Term 12’s greatest victory is the pleasure we get from hearing Mason tell his stories and openly emote, from Nate finally doing the careful right thing and learning a lesson in selflessness, and from Grace making peace with her own past. The children in the film struggle, fail and succeed. But maybe the help really does go both ways, the small can become big, and maybe parents need children just as much as children need parents.