Achieving a high level of authenticity and believability in a film is no easy task and as easy as it is to praise the work of Brie Larson and John Gallagher Jr. in writer/director Destin Cretton’s Short Term 12 where they play two employees at a foster facility for troubled teens, it’s the actors playing the teens that make everything feel so honest and altogether heart-breaking as much as it is heart-warming. While Cretton isn’t able to avoid all stereotypical trappings of a film of this sort, he does know how to deal with the more heightened dramatic beats in ways that don’t cause the film to lose that well-earned realism and he found just the right cast to pull it all together.
The story is told through Larson’s character, Grace, a twenty-something staffer who we learn is living with and dating her co-worker Mason (Gallagher Jr.), but little does Mason know, she just found out she’s pregnant. At the outset these are just merely character-establishing details. It’s obvious they’re going to play a role in the film, because how could they not? Workplace relationships and the revelation someone is pregnant just don’t come about in movies and go untouched for the duration. The question is How will these details be dealt with? and the answer is what makes Short Term 12 a winner.
Grace is a complex character in ways most feature film screenwriters overlook. Many will pile drama on a character to absurd levels, looking for an immediate and over-the-top reaction. Because heightened drama in movies is, for whatever reason, preferred over subtlety. Or a character will be written as a newbie and their reactions are immature rather than well-reasoned. Just like superhero movies, the wont to tell an “origin story” bleeds over to drama as well.
However, Grace has been doing her job for several years. She’s seen a lot and you can tell immediately how long she and her co-workers have been at it by how they react and work with the kids in their care. For the newcomer perspective, Cretton offers Rami Malek as Nate, a character that provides perspective and understanding at just how good Grace, Mason, Jessica (Stephanie Beatriz) and others are at their jobs by how terrified he is in his new role. It’s understandable, these kids are broken, but as the film will soon prove, so are we all.
One of the storylines Short Term 12 focuses on is that of Marcus played superbly by Keith Stanfield. Marcus is about to turn 18-years-old and his time in the foster home is coming to an end, but you can see just how much he doesn’t want to leave. Whether these kids have been beaten, abandoned or molested, they’ve all been asked to grow up too soon and to deal with emotions even adults aren’t prepared to handle. So in a situation where an 18-year-old kid is forced to leave the one place he has been able to call home, the effect is incredibly powerful, especial when you’re looking in Stanfield’s eyes or through Grace and Mason’s.
A second storyline brings Grace’s history to light through a new teen entering the home. We don’t know much about Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) when she first arrives, but her character’s story will take us through the end of the film as she grows closer to Grace and Grace is forced to confront her own inner demons and her unknown future.
Short Term 12 is bookended by two fantastic stories told by Mason and Gallagher Jr. nails the cadence, just as much as he makes your heart weep midway through during a speech at his foster parents’ anniversary party. As much as this movie plays heavily on the drama, it’s a film that grows and swells into something more. Something about the good in people and the need for those around us to help fight the battles that may prove too much for one person to take.
Certainly the issues the characters in Short Term 12 are elevated above those most of us face on a daily basis, but the actors’ ability to create sympathetic characters and Cretton’s ability to portray them as real people rather than stereotypes places their concerns on our shoulders. By the time the final scene fades into a sun-kissed run across the home’s front lawn, you can’t help but feel you’ve seen something special… Because you have.