Short Term 12 (2013) / Drama
MPAA Rated: R for language and brief sexuality
Running Time: 96 min.
Cast: Brie Larson, John Gallagher Jr,, Kaitlyn Dever, Keith Stanfield, Rami Malek, Kevin Hernandez, Frantz Turner, Stephanie Beatriz, Alex Calloway
Director: Destin Cretton
Screenplay: Destin Cretton
Review published September 10, 2013
Writer-director Destin Cretton (I Am Not a Hipster) fleshes out his award-winning short film of the same name that he produced in 2008, revolving around the non-professionally licensed young men and women charged with supervising a residential care facility for at-risk teenagers. Most of the story follows the travails of Grace (Larson, The Spectacular Now), once a troubled teenager herself, who is trying to keep her life in order with her career, her burgeoning romance with home colleague Mason (Gallagher Jr., Whatever Works), and the sometimes heart-wrenching stories she has to deal with on a daily basis with the teens in her care. When a new girl named Jayden (Dever, Bad Teacher) walks in showing similar dangerous patterns in her life as Grace had when she was her age, it hits a little too close to home, opening up old wounds she thought were healed long ago.
Although a fictional drama, Cretton's film benefits from a semi-documentary feel, using hand-held cameras that put us in the middle of what's going on. But what's most remarkable about Cretton's film isn't that it looks like what we'd imagine we'd see in the care facility in real life, but that the actors deliver such authentic performances, we immediately get lost in their peculiar world. Cretton draws from his own experiences as a former employee of a home not too dissimilar to the one depicted in Short Term 12, and many of the events and personalities we find in this story come from his own anecdotal material. While other films about people who are in mental health facilities tend to treat their subjects as extremes, or perhaps even quirky and cute, Short Term 12's teenagers seem like traditional kids externally, with severe problems with coping with their emotional needs in ways that aren't destructive to themselves or to others.
Brie Larson continues to show why she's one of the more promising actors of her generation, with a performance that feels effortless, honest, and with a good deal of emotional connection. Playing in perfect pitch with her is Gallagher Jr., who plays the male lead in a way that is compassionate and full of the selfless kind of love that shows that, deep down, he's aware that Grace is a very closed book emotionally, but he feels so deeply for her that he's willing to wait a lifetime for her to learn to trust him, if that's what it takes. He isn't an idealized, fault-free person, but he comes across as genuine -- not cloying, not too good to be true.
And it isn't just Larson and Gallagher shouldering the load of the film's narrative authenticity. The casting of the teens is impeccable, with a particularly mesmerizing supporting role from Keith Stanfield as Marcus, the anguished teen on the verge of manhood who puts all of his pain and frustration into the the lyrics of the hip-hop he pens. Stanfield, who also appeared in the 2008 short film, feels so real in the role that you'd swear you're watching a real person with real issues that somehow didn't know he was being filmed, rather than an actor emulating the role of one. Almost as good is Dever as the brash and troubled Jayden, whose tough-girl exterior is so clearly a means to keep people away from the fragile psyche that lies underneath. She announces to the world that they needn't even bother; it's nothing personal, she doesn't plan on staying long so why waste time in trying to be friends?
Credit Cretton for being able to tell this story without the need to go wildly overboard in events that manufacture traditional movie moments, particularly in a climax that in so many ways could have shattered the illusion of truth that surrounds the rest of the film up to that point. Cretton and his adept cast of actors navigate through some tricky waters, avoiding icebergs of mawkishness and clichés with a skill that only comes through careful study, preparation, and life experience to draw upon. Unlike real life, at least most of the time, there is a climax and an epilogue to the film that remind us we're all watching a movie, but even then, it's admirable to see restraint in a film that clearly could have gone out big and controversial.
Short Term 12 is a remarkable film about secrets -- secret lives and secret habits -- some exposed, some buried so deep that they won't come out without a willingness on the part of the person holding the secret to let it out. And let it out they must in order to move on, but to let it out to just anyone involves a good deal of trust, care and willingness. These are secrets of trauma and shame; divulging them requires reliving them all over again, though burying them down deep is what is manifesting itself in self-destructive behavior. Short Term 12 shows beautifully that, sometimes, it's best to go through it all in the short term, to even take a step back, in order to release the burden, and finally be able to move forward with one's life less encumbered, because now there are other people there to help shoulder the load.
©2013 Vince Leo