Directed By: Destin Cretton
Written By: Destin Cretton
Cast: Brie Larson, John Gallagher Jr., Rami Malek, Keith Stanfield, Kaitlyn Dever
Destin Cretton’s Short Term 12 is not the kind of movie you’d expect to be described as ballsy or stylish when it comes to the script. It’s a movie about the trials and tribulations of life in a group home, both for the people that work there and the children who live there.
The surprise indie darling was a movie I’d wanted to see for a long time, so when I got the chance I leapt at it. I expected a movie that was beautiful, emotional, but sad. The subject matter seemed to lend itself to the air of intense sadness that accompanies most movies about real life struggle. Instead, I was confronted with a movie that took on the complexity of human emotions and relationships without blinking. The first thing I said when I walked out of the theater: “that movie was ballsy as hell!”
Let’s talk about the plot for a second. Brie Larson (who is absolutely amazing and will get a lot of attention soon) plays Grace the head of a section at Short Term 12. Short Term 12 is a group home where children are sent while social services find them foster homes. Kids are only supposed to be there for a year, but as the movie explains early on, some of them have been there for almost three years.
This movie wastes no time making it clear that the system doesn’t work as well as you’d hope. The early story focuses on Nate (Rami Malek), a college student looking for real world experience, and uses his introduction to the home to slowly show the contours of the world. As the movie progresses it begins to stress a number of important relationships in Grace’s life, relationships that are therefore integral to the home.
It follows her romantic relationship with Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) who is another counselor at the home. More dramatically it delves deep into her relationships with Marcus (Keith Stanfield), an African American boy who is about to turn eighteen and go out into the world, and Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) an unstable young woman who has an unhealthy relationship with her father. Short Term 12 is able to delve into these characters in deep and nuanced ways without sacrificing the mix of humor and intensity that makes it great. Almost as impressively the film is still able to incorporate the other children in the home even as Marcus and Jayden become the primary focus of the story.
I really cannot say enough about the bravery of the script. It is able to deftly navigate a series of complex issues in a way that isn’t soul crushingly sad, but rather intensely real. It comes complete with the full mix of emotions. This would not be possible without extraordinary performances across the board.
Most amazing of all is Brie Larson’s turn as Grace. Larson is able to summon up a combination of strength and pain that shifts seamlessly between the two. The reality she brings to Grace spreads through the rest of the film granting it a clear naturalism that works better than any would dare to expect. Larson is not the only revelation. Kaitlyn Dever’s Jayden and Keith Stanfield’s Marcus are both played flawlessly. Both young actors bring an impressive complexity to the two characters, and are more than capable of communicating emotion through body language and facial expression, as well as vocalization.
It would have been easy to just pile on the drama with the inherent sadness of the situation. Group homes are often the site of tragedy. Their very existence speaks to a failure on the part of society to protect the people that need help the most. Instead of letting that theme dictate the whole movie, Short Term 12 allows it to exist in the background, and the characters fill in the rest. This movie has jokes, and many of them are hilarious. It also has moments of intense drama and deep tragedy, all of which are devastating. It strikes an impeccable balance in that respect. It also does something that I find truly amazing. This is where Destin Cretton truly blew my mind wide open.
The movie doesn’t portray any of the kids as bad, but problemed. More than that it doesn’t portray them as perfect and unlucky. Instead, it feels real. They are sweet kids, but they aren’t angels. The movie makes you love them despite their flaws. Instead of painting with broad strokes Cretton trades in specifics. This movie is beautifully, painfully real. The cinematography is tastefully simple, only going stylized when the moment truly calls for it. This film truly understands its subject and that knowledge makes it powerful. That is impeccable filmmaking.
P.S. If this sounds a bit like a rambling mess that’s because it is. It’s a testament to the sheer power of this movie that I just can’t find a way to describe it that does it justice. This really is a masterpiece. Go see it now!