[This is a re-post of my review from the 2013 SXSW Film Festival. It has been slightly edited to reflect the current date. Short Term 12 opens today in limited release.]
I wrote in my review of Kelly + Victor about how love couldn’t always overcome past abuse. The film makes a fine presentation of its theme, but it left me feeling empty all the same. I want love to triumph, and I want characters to cope with emotional trauma. Most importantly, I want that sentiment to be earned. Anything less is corny and condescending. A film has to go to dangerous places in order to earn the emotionally powerful crescendo it hopes to achieve. Destin Daniel Cretton‘s Short Term 12 goes to those dangerous places, and delivers that emotional powerhouse through the confidence of its direction, the thoughtful and surprisingly funny script, and the tremendous performances from its cast led by a breakthrough turn from star Brie Larson.
Grace (Larson) and her boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) work at Short Term 12, a foster-care facility for at-risk kids. Despite her young age, Grace and her co-workers are experts at their jobs as they provide affection without overstepping bounds and firmly mete out disciplinary action when appropriate. The rules are in place to protect everyone, and everyone at Short Term 12, including Grace, needs some kind of emotional protection. Grace is in control when she’s working at the facility, but she must finally face her past trauma when she meets Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), a young girl whose present trauma forces Grace to confront her past.
Reading the synopsis of Short Term 12 in the SXSW program guide, I couldn’t get enough distance from the movie. It sounded ridiculously schmaltzy and cloying, and going from the basic synopsis, it’s not hard to understand why. The film easily could have fallen into brazen manipulation with the director practically begging the audience, “Cry for meeeeeee!” It’s too easy to mine abused kids for an audience’s tears; the challenge is in being completely true to the reality of the situation rather than letting the concept try and stand on its own.
There are no fancy shots or flair in Short Term 12, but there is immense subtlety. Cretton and cinematographer Brett Pawlak know exactly where to place the camera and how long to hold the shot. The director goes in for the close-up when he needs it, and he knows other times when he needs to keep his distance. This isn’t ostentatious or glamorous, but it’s invaluable when creating the subconscious level of intimacy this story requires.
In addition to the savvy cinematography and pacing, Short Term 12 handles radical tonal shifts like no movie I’ve ever seen. The swiftness with which the film can swing between funny and serious is astounding. Short Term 12 should be a tonally jarring mess, but Cretton makes the shifts feel seamless and fitting. This isn’t a matter of using gallows humor as a way to create distance from pain. This is a matter of making sure that just as these characters must face their pain, they also can’t shut out the love, kindness, and laughter in the world. By finding this balance, Cretton makes sure his film is affecting but not dour or morose.
The other key to the film’s success are the phenomenal performances. Brie Larson has been making her name in solid supporting roles for the last several years, but Short Term 12 will make everyone who sees it finally sit up and take notice of her talent. For all of Cretton’s abilities, the movie would not work without Larson’s commanding, vulnerable, and at times absolutely heartbreaking performance. She has to be the calm center the kids can feel comfortable around, but in her private moments, Grace is still as scared and hurt as the young people in her charge. There are some wounds that never heal, and when we look into Larson’s eyes, we feel the wounds that continue to pain her character. This isn’t a colorful role where any actress could step in and the writing would do the work for them. Grace’s most memorable moments live and breathe in the small moments and silences, and Larson is magnificent at bringing this compelling character to life.
Although she could probably carry the movie on her own if she needed to, Larson is surrounded with an amazing cast with particularly noteworthy turns by Dever and by Keith Stanfield, who plays Marcus, a young man at the facility who is about to turn 18 and be released. Both characters have moments where they use their art as a way to express the abuse they’ve received from their parents, and these scenes almost broke me. Cretton completely gives the scene over to his young actors, and I was devastated when Marcus’ raps about his mom and when Jayden tells a children’s parable she wrote about a shark and an octopus.
The feelings delivered through the power of art, and how those feelings have the ability to heal, is the art I want to see. But to get to those feelings, a director must have the confidence, ability, and resources to tap into the emotions in an honest manner. He or she must be fearless and the cast must be equally courageous. We expect love to triumph, but that triumph only means something if that love is truly tested. A film like Kelly + Victor says that love fails that test, and sometimes that’s true. But I gain nothing by watching characters ultimately give into despair. I want to see people be good to each other. I want to see characters face their demons and come out victorious on the other side. And I want to see these triumphs earned. Short Term 12 positively earns every feeling it conjures.