Normally, I'd designate a film like this to my Art-House Round-Up, and lord knows compared to the distribution of other films coming out just this week, it certainly qualifies. But I think SHORT TERM 12 is so special, dignified, and awe-inspiring that I'm giving it its own review this week, in the hopes that many of you will check it out and be moved.
If this story had been placed in the care of any other director, the temptation would have been to put the spotlight on the kids in this group foster home, all of whom have fascinating stories behind what brought them there and the progress they've made since arriving. But SHORT TERM 12 writer-director Destin Cretton actually held a counselor job at a facility similar to the one in his movie, and he chooses to give slightly more weight to the only slightly older folks looking after these wayward youths — some of whom have been placed there because they may be harmful to themselves or others; some are there because there's simply no one else to take care of them.
There is still plenty of material here about the kids, but Cretton allows us to see that these counselors are there for very specific reasons, and I'm guessing none of those reason have to do with their salaries. We learn in one of the earliest scenes in SHORT TERM 12 that Grace (the transcendent Brie Larson, most recently featured in THE SPECTACULAR NOW) has just found out she's pregnant by fellow counselor Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), and from that point forward every scene that follows is colored by that discovery. She's doesn't tell him or anyone until deep into the story, but we now realize every time she looks at him, she's wondering what he'd be like as a father, and she sees every kid in her care and wonders, "What if my kids turns out like one of them?"
On the day we meet Grace and Mason at work, we also meet Nate (Rami Malek), a first-day counselor who has an infinite number of things to learn about the work before him, and the "error" portion of his trial-and-error phase begins almost immediately. But Nate is our eyes, and a lot gets explained to us about procedures and individual kids as someone is cluing Nate in on the state of the union. Immediately, what sets SHORT TERM 12 apart from other films about troubled kids—whether they are in group homes or mental facilities or hospitals—is the absolutely lack of sentimentality. Cretton is trying as best he can to present this place and these people as accurately and realistically as possible, and on that front he succeeds. These kids aren't a fun bunch of wacky characters; they are deeply troubled and disturbed, and they have trouble trusting anyone or even believing they are worthy of being loved.
But the film always comes back to Grace and Mason. He clearly is crazy about her, and some deep-seated, unknown trouble from her past puts a wall up around her and keeps her at arm's length from this patient (to a point) man. For much of the film, I was a little uncertain about Mason; he seemed almost like too much of a pushover, too forgiving. But the film goes on, we learn that he was raised a certain way in a home where exercising patience was a virtue.
Grace's limits are pushed with the introduction of 15-year-old Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), who seems to have been bounced around by her absentee father. There's a pain in Jayden's eyes and a disconnect in her soul that Dever captures to such perfection that she may be too scary for you to handle. But in Jayden, Grace sees something familiar, and after the girl reads Grace a heartbreaking story she's written about a shark and an octopus that are friends, Grace is so moved that she casts herself in the role of protector.
But Jayden is only the tip of the traumatic lives in this facility. I was especially impressed with young actor Keith Stanfield as Marcus, who is on the verge of leaving the home when he turns 18, and while he seems to have promise as an independent survivor (he's also is a great freestyle rapper), we also get a sense that he could slip right back into self-destructive behavior all over again due to any number of triggers. A Grand Jury and Audience Award winner at this year's SXSW Film Festival, SHORT TERM 12 is filled with one great performance after another, but its Larson's portrayal of the unstable, uncertain Grace that is the glue that holds the film together. She's in control as the home's voice of authority, dishing out rewards and punishments like a drill sergeant; while at home, she's questioning her abilities as a parent, a partner and a person.
And though you won't believe it because I realize I've just painted this film to be the heaviest, most depressing thing you've ever heard of, SHORT TERM 12 is also really funny throughout, especially when the counselors get together and tell wonderful stories about their work to Nate. Laughter and tears: how could you want anything more? This is not only one of the true discoveries of the year, but simply one of the best films you'll see in 2013.