Director: Destin Cretton
Runtime: 96 minutes
Short Term 12 ends exactly the way it begins: with a story that provides a glimpse into the lives of one of its characters. There are differences in subject matter and outcome, but by and large the bookends feel almost identical, as though nothing has changed. Yet given what transpires between those bookends, it would be foolish to judge Short Term 12 as being without narrative accomplishment. At the heart of Destin Cretton's festival sensation is a story rooted in the day-to-day triumphs and failures of humble people in humble surroundings. They don't change the world by the time the credits roll, but that doesn't mean that their journeys are less valuable.
Though certainly nowhere near as expansive and dense (few things are), it's tempting to compare Cretton's film to HBO's The Wire. The series' final scene is a montage of the city of Baltimore, showing how much it has stayed the same, despite all of the efforts of its protagonists. Yet rather than condescend, The Wire and Short Term 12 utilize this juxtaposition of big and small pictures to lend a human face to a far-reaching issue.
For Short Term 12, that issue is abused and neglected children. Based on Cretton's own experiences, the writer/director's sophomore feature follows the lives of the youthful staff at a foster care home. Opening with the arrival of Nate (Rami Malek), a new employee, the story's actual focus is Grace (Brie Larson). If anything, Nate is our window into the foster care home's world and rules. While he struggles (often with uncomfortably funny results) to adjust to the vibe, Grace and her co-worker/boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) show him the ropes. In the elegantly paced opening reels, Cretton communicates information through effective dialogue and imagery that keeps the freeform narrative from stagnating.
More importantly, the script, as brought to life, is full of tenderness that never borders on sappy manipulation. There's ample opportunity for Short Term 12 to slip into ham-fisted white savior territory (3 of the 4 main staff are white; the kids are quite diverse), yet the interactions avoid condescension and stereotyping. As Grace and Mason go through their own isolated drama, Cretton remains firmly committed not only to their time at work, but the lives of the kids they're doing their best to care for. Some, like Marcus (Keith Stanfield), are nearing the end of their stay, while others, like Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) have only just arrived. Yet the handful of cases that the script really hones in on are smartly chosen and delicately woven together in this portrait of kindness and frailty.
Grace and Mason, though never blank, are intelligently used to build up the subplots of the kids. They have to put their personal drama in the background for work, and the film follows suit. The first moments to really hit home are those of Marcus and Jayden. As Marcus, Stanfield delivers a beautifully reserved performance, and his scenes are easily among the most powerful. The young actor possesses a quiet magnetism that could fill up an entire movie all on its own. Even something as simple as a haircut comes loaded with deeper meaning, yet Cretton never pile drives the characters for the sake of exploitative suffering. These are people who have lived through horrific experiences, and the script is intelligent in its refrain from histrionics.
The closest that Short Term 12 comes to faltering - from a narrative perspective - is the run up to the climax. It's designed to take the open-ended nature of the character study and build to an emotional breaking point. Were it not for the strength of the characters, and Cretton's level-headed directing, the amount of bad events that pile up flirts with contrivance. Thankfully, the flirtation is brief, and it leaves no lasting marks. Aided by Joel P. West's delicate scoring, the film moves along effectively, yet never shortchanges a moment, even when as a few musical beats feel a touch on the nose.
Of course, the main source of all of the fuss about Short Term 12 has been Ms. Larson, and not without reason. With so much emotional turmoil going on around her, Grace is a figure of strength, capable of relating with the kids while still keeping order. Or, as Hemingway would put it (were he a fan of name-based puns), she's an example of grace under pressure. Always an engaging and watchable performer, Larson has never been given such a meaty role, and she nails every moment. Rather than go for big emotion, she keeps Grace in line with the film around her, only letting the cracks in the surface show when necessary.
Every bit her equal is Gallagher, who more than makes up for his puzzlingly flat work on The Newsroom with a charming and heartfelt turn that never feels generic or forced. Cretton takes his time pulling back the layers with Grace and Mason, especially the former, but the end result is authentic and filled with quiet beauty. By the time we reach the end, and see that the film is ending just as it began, it's hard to see the scenes as identical. As easy as it would be to dismiss the final lighthearted interaction, it's but the surface of these people's lives. Like Larson's performance, Short Term 12's authenticity and measured compassion are what make it such a quiet revelation. American indie cinema doesn't get much better than this.