Film Review: "Short Term 12" is powerfully gripping yet delightfully warm drama
Hoo boy. Typically, the end credits of a film is the queue for audiences to leave the theatre. The movie is over, and unless you don’t have access to IMDB somehow (in which case, wow, you have my sympathies), or you’re waiting for the end-credits preview of the next Avengers movie, now’s your chance to exit. But as the end credits for this film started to scroll up the screen, nobody moved. Everyone was glued to their seats in stunned silence, and the last time I checked, we were not at a screening of Thor: The Dark World. I turned to the audience member next to me, and we exchanged knowing nods of agreement. We were still reeling from the emotional rollercoaster ride that was Short Term 12.
An impressive sophomore feature effort from writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton (his first feature being 2012’s I Am Not A Hipster), Short Term 12 is an intimate look into life at a foster-care facility for at-risk youth: from the trials of the teenagers who seek refuge in the facility, to the tribulations of the carers who dedicate their lives towards creating a safe haven for those kids. The film’s story is told through the eyes of the lead supervisor at the facility, Grace, played by Brie Larson (Community, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World). It’s a simple but intriguing premise, and the story that unravels in the film cements its spot the best film I've seen this year (and we all know how coveted that spot is).
Part and parcel of that makes Short Term 12 such an emotionally resonant and well-crafted film is the sense of authenticity that reverberates through every aspect of the film. It is a labour of love for Cretton, who has previously worked in a similar foster-care facility himself, and witnessed firsthand the issues that the teenagers and their carers grapple with. This comes through in the naturalistic, almost faux-documentarian way in which the film is shot (the shaky-cam Cretton utilises is always subtle and never overbearing), providing audiences with an intimate sneak peek into the characters’ struggles while also keeping a respectful distance.
Like many dramas that tackle weighty social issues, there is temptation for the film to veer towards melodrama territory, but Short Term 12 cleverly steers clear of that route. This is largely due to how well-developed the characters are. The film presents its main characters as fully-fledged human beings with their own wants and contradictions; each of them a mystery to unravel as the story progresses.
Every dramatic scene or emotional moment in the film is earned and never feels manipulative, and this is mostly a credit to the genuine performances given by its talented ensemble cast. John Gallagher Jr. (The Newsroom) is perfectly charming as the affable, yarn-churning carer Mason, who is also in a romantic relationship with Grace, while youngsters Keith Stanfield and Kaitlyn Dever (Justified) are capably affecting as Marcus and Jayden respectively, both of whom are troubled teenagers trying to cope with the chaos of their lives. However, it is Larson’s tour-de-force portrayal as Grace that is the emotional anchor of this film. Look, I know the term “tour-de-force” is kind of cliché when it comes to film reviews nowadays, but by god, does Larson deserve it, as she gives a career-defining (but criminally overlooked) breakthrough performance with such chilling but subdued intensity. Larson is able to convey so much of Grace’s compassion as well as her inner turmoil through her facial expressions alone, especially in scenes where she doesn't speak much at all.
The film isn’t just 97 minutes of depressing misery, of course. As much as it shows the anguish of its characters, Short Term 12 also shows us the joy they experience. In fact, Cretton is adept at making the audience weep in one scene and laugh in the next. Essentially, Short Term 12 is an intricate character-study about the idiosyncratic nature of expression: How we express our thoughts and emotions, the different ways in which we express ourselves, and more importantly, what happens if we don’t.
Powerfully gripping yet delightfully warm, Short Term 12 is an emotional roller-coaster that strikes the perfect balance between its affecting screenplay, assured direction, and unflinchingly honest performances from its talented cast, led by Brie Larson in a star-making turn.
5 OUT OF 5 BRIE STARS