Short Term 12 Movie Review: Intimate and Secretive

The indie film you should see this weekend.
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The setting is a small group home for foster kids. They are troubled teens that are only meant to spend a few months there, perhaps a year at most, living under the guidance of floor staff, therapists, and social workers before it is their time to move to their next home. Short Term 12 is the name of the facility and also the title of the film that beautifully captures the delicate nature of what it means to be damaged and how to work together to try and repair.

The new feature film Short Term 12, from writer and director Destin Cretton, has been awarded and getting much praise on the festival circuit, including winning the Grand Jury Prize from SXSW Film Festival this last March. This film has the indie success that all independent filmmakers hope to replicate. It began as a short film in 2008, with the same title, that premiered at Sundance Film Festival and took home the award for Best Short Film. Now it has blossomed with its feature roots, with a developed story that is accessible to all audiences but true to its independent spirit.

Grace (Brie Larson) and Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) are the seasoned floor staff at Short Term 12, and although they are young they are able to handle most things thrown a them - literally and figuratively. When a new hire, Nate (Rami Malek), joins the team at the same time that a new patient arrives, we are immediately brought into the intimate world of troubled teens and foster care.  Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), the young girl that has been in and out of many homes, has come to Short Term 12 as a last resort, and Grace must deal with helping her and herself as Jayden reminds her too much of her own past. To make things more complicated, Mason and Grace live together and are presented with their own hurdles to get over as they must deal with being in a relationship in and out of the workplace.

The film builds with simple, beautiful moments, allowing the viewer to piece together each character's world. When Jayden and Grace sketch in her room, it is them silently bonding because Jayden will not participate in anything they do, or when Grace tactfully ices cupcakes for a birthday party we understand that she is not perfect but that she cares. But here everyone is troubled- these are kids that come from abuse and broken homes, it is a world that is sad but there is hope when they work together. The characters could so easily fall flat into stereotypes of troubled teens but clearly Cretton understands his story and the delicate subject matter that we are immersed in.

Everything about the film is intimate and secretive. Most of Short Term 12 is shot in close-ups with hand-held camera movement, creating an almost claustrophobic space. We are physically very close to these characters and the demons they struggle with. They all speak quietly to one another in the most dramatic moments of the film, sharing cherished secrets they have not always felt safe revealing. Larson brings a warmth to Grace that is tangible on screen; you know that she loves each one of the kids as they are just as important in helping her and she is for them. Down to the musical score, this film shows the talent of a great director and cast and brings a freshness of a great independent film.

The nature of this particular beast is that it is cyclical - new kids come in, others leave and you must restart with the same enthusiasm, support and generosity shown to the previous children. Short Term 12 is as much about helping those that are less fortunate as it is about helping yourself; life isn’t easy and this film captures that beautifully, for that is what great filmmaking should do - give us hope.  

Short Term 12 currently has a limited release in LA & NY - go see this great film!

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