Review: Short Term 12 (Cretton, 2013)

Still from the movie Short Term 12

A story about a foster care facility may be a tough sell for some moviegoers, but I promise you that Short Term 12 is not a downer of a film. You may cry–I sure did (though Planes: Fire & Rescue got me a little choked up, too, so take that as you will)–but you’ll also laugh and smile, perhaps all within the same five-minute span.

Brie Larson (21 Jump Street, The Spectacular Now) stars in this drama featuring a group of twenty-somethings, as well as a handful of residents, who work or live in a temporary housing institution for foster youth. Three of the staff are old hands, and one of them, Grace (Larson), is the supervisor. They aren’t counselors or therapists, as Grace tells newcomer Nate (Rami Malek), but are just there to watch out and care for the children, most of whom are at the difficult t(w)een age. Grace is also carrying on an off-line romance with co-staff member and nominal subordinate Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), who possesses a charm reminiscent of The Office‘s Jim Halpert. When new resident Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) arrives, it becomes clear that a few of the staff have difficult pasts of their own.

The magic of this movie is the success with which it balances its heavy subject matter with a lighter tone. The manner in which this is achieved is not at all contrived but in fact reflects the ways that humans often deal with difficult emotions and trauma. But the humor here is never forced. Instead, the audience feels as if it is peeping in on real, natural interactions between friends, lovers, caretakers and the cared for. Neither does the film shy away from exploring dark places, though these are more often hinted at than explicitly explored, which also feels true-to-life.

I was relieved to hear that writer and director Destin Daniel Cretton did indeed spend two years working in such a facility–relieved, that is, to know that his story comes from experience. Not that it should matter, but there is something satisfying in the knowledge that there is a degree authenticity to what is being represented in the film, if only because it does feel so authentic, and authentically moving. The difference between this film and White Oleander, the last movie I saw about a teen in the foster care system, is in this authenticity, which relies on an understated script and a resplendent cast. On that score, Larson, Gallagher, and Dever are spot-on, and the other kids (Alex Calloway, Kevin Hernandez, Keith Stanfield) do their part, too–particularly Stanfield, who, as far as I can tell, is the only holdover from the short that preceded this film (also titled Short Term 12). Cretton was quick to point out in an interview that, though the feature-length Short Term 12 grew out of the short, he considers the stories to be unconnected narratives.

The only potential flaw I found in the film was in its ending, though I have since changed my mind about that. At first, I decided it was a bit too neat and hopeful, considering the shadowy places that had just been traversed. On second thought, though, I considered that life does have its triumphs as well as its trials, and why not focus on this one small triumph? The ending, after all, doesn’t claim too much–just a bit of laughter and light–and that tone is more in keeping with the rest of the film. I heartily endorse Short Term 12.