Brie Larson is quietly amazing in Short Term 12, one of the best films of 2013. The title isn’t great (I can’t think of a better one), and the poster was designed by someone who might not have seen the movie. (The web site is lovely – http://shortterm12.com. The trailer is a good overview.) Destin Daniel Cretton wrote and directed based on his experiences and his own 2008 short feature. He achieves that miracle of film: transportation to a different world, with echoes that linger in the mind and heart.
Larson plays Grace, an hourly worker at a foster care facility for troubled youth. Cretton places us alongside Grace and her co-workers without explaining too much of anyone’s backstory. Significantly, the residents at the facility are treated with dignity – they are not problems to be solved or stereotypes to be mined but are presented as real people. We follow Grace through a work day and then as she visits a medical clinic and goes home afterward. Cretton and Larson “show, don’t tell” – we learn about Grace by spending time with her. She’s great at a job that many couldn’t imagine doing, with plenty of life complications on the side. She is romantically involved with Mason (a nicely self-effacing John Gallagher Jr.) who doesn’t understand why she keeps him at arm’s length.
Two kids become the focus of attention as the movie progresses. One is Marcus (Keith Stanfield), an African-American boy who is aging out of the program. The other is Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), an emotionally isolated girl who cuts herself. Cretton never allows their story lines to drift into melodrama – he’s interested in relationships. To this end, the film is quite moving (it sneaks up on you.) Because of the setting, we expect bad things to happen (some do), but the resolutions carry unexpected shades of grace.
If you notice the noun at the end of the previous paragraph, the consonance isn’t coincidental. Short Term 12 has a few bits like that, which are more on-the-nose than they might be. One late scene is scored too intensely – the effect is jarring in the midst of an otherwise subtle musical accompaniment. A new hire at the facility is too obviously an audience stand-in. The ending might be too upbeat (but I loved it). These are small things. This is a film about love, hope, and how those make a difference in the world.