It’s not an easy sell. The story of a bunch of kids living in group housing and their counselors who could use some counseling themselves. But to skip Short Term 12 based solely off its premise would be to cheat yourself of an emotionally-charged and genuinely touching story. The film is as eye-opening as it is compelling; reminding us of a group of children who’ve been so discarded by society they literally have nowhere to go but short-term foster care. Receiving raves out of South by Southwest, it was named best narrative film by both the festival’s jury and its audience. It’s based on writer/director Destin Cretton‘s award-winning short film of the same name that, in turn, was based on Cretton’s real life experience.
From its onset, Short Term 12 is completely encapsulating. Its opening sequence, that assures you this will be a loving and well-thought-out portrayal of these kids, throws you into the world of Short Term 12, a place with many layers and complicated emotions. First there are Grace (Brie Larson) and Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), counselors at the facility, who are dating. Then there’s Nate (Rami Malek), another counselor who’s just started. There are also the kids, most notably Marcus (Keith Stanfield), just about to turn 18 and face the open world, and Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), another newcomer at Short Term 12. Each has their own demons, and breakthroughs, as the film unfolds and their stories intertwine.
As the movie presses forward, motivations and secrets are revealed, each delivered at exactly the right moment. Short Term 12 elicits tears, but never manipulates its characters to do so. Cretton has crafted a brilliant screenplay; its humor and joy are equally as sharp.
Larson, who has been working in Hollywood since a very young age, finds herself in her first leading role. As Grace, she is phenomenal, delivering a jaw-dropping performance completely devoid of vanity. She is the highlight, but Dever packs an incredible punch as Jayden, the emo-inclined teenager whose relationship with her father causes Grace to think more about her own. Gallagher is also excellent as Grace’s supportive and charming partner, as is Stanfield. The entire cast creates characters so full, they haunt you; you wonder about their futures long after the film has ended.
Cretton’s real life experience aside, this is a work of fiction. But its acting is so strong, and the story so well crafted, so emotionally honest, it feels real.
Some have criticized Short Term 12 for being too sentimental. It’s not. Not, at least, in the way that word is usually used, implying phoniness. It is hopeful. It truly believes in the good we can do as humans. And I don’t know that I truly want to live in a world where the word hopeful can be hurled as an insult. Do you?