This well-received feature from 2013, which details life in a temporary care home for troubled teenagers in California, won a large number of awards on the indie festival circuit during that year. Many of these went to its lead, Brie Larson, who plays Grace, the inspirational young supervisor of the home who must maintain a focus on the kids staying at the centre while struggling with her own ongoing issues that are the long-term effects of a childhood spent with an abusive father. The awards were well-deserved, and Short Term 12 has proved to be something of a breakthrough for Larson, who is currently appearing alongside Marky Mark in The Gambler with fairly high profile films like Judd Apatow’s Trainwreck and Lenny Abrahamson’s Room scheduled for release later this year.
Short Term 12 was made by Hawaiian writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton, who drew on his own experience of working in a group facility for troubled teenagers when writing the screenplay. I must admit that my own prior expectations of what such a place would be like were slightly wide of the mark, and at first I wondered whether the director had created a slightly watered-down version, but that soon passed; being guided through the rooms and typical situations of this place by someone who is clearly familiar with the subject matter felt beneficial (aided, it must be said, by the bobbing intimacy of Brett Pawlak’s handheld camera).
Grace is a warm, compassionate and funny character, but tough when toughness is required of her. The abrupt changes in atmosphere in the home require such flexibility, a fact highlighted during the film’s prologue and epilogue, in which carefree bouts of story-swapping among Grace and her colleagues are interrupted when a child called Sammy (Alex Calloway) makes a break for the exit (important because the kids who get past the facility’s gate can’t be touched by the supervisors when they are in the ‘outside world’). Later on, birthday celebrations and games taking place inside Short Term 12 are juxtaposed – sometimes immediately – with fights, scenes of self-harm, other displays of anger and even an attempted suicide, revealing that this environment – though often a very pleasant, safe place for these teenagers – has a kind of tinderbox-like potential at all times.
Grace’s most senior co-worker is Mason (John Gallagher, Jr, otherwise best known for his role in Aaron Sorkin’s recent HBO drama The Newsroom), who was raised by foster parents and is seen thanking them during one moving, tearful scene. Grace and Mason are in a serious relationship but problems arise when Grace becomes pregnant; it is her second pregnancy and the first was apparently a direct result of her father’s abuse, which led to an abortion.
In the home, in addition to Grace and Mason, Cretton concentrates on a handful of characters. There is Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), a young girl who has also suffered abuse at the hands of her father, a situation Grace immediately identifies with. There is also Marcus (Keith Stanfield), suffering from depression and nervous about leaving the facility as his 18th birthday approaches, and Nate (Rami Malek), a brand new supervisor whose inexperience means he says the wrong things on occasion.
Short Term 12 is a well-intentioned work, with a warm heart, and the level of the performances by both Gallagher, Jr and Larson are matched by several other cast members, albeit with smaller parts. The subject matter – the welfare of the children seeking refuge at the facility – is treated with intelligence and there’s also a dry wit in Grace and Mason’s interplay that makes their relationship entirely believable. It isn’t perfect – Cretton gets a little carried away during a 15 minute mini-rampage near the end which culminates with a spot of unlikely criminal damage – but by-and-large it’s a moving, well-scripted and intelligent portrait of a group of troubled teenagers and those who are trying to help them through this early stage of life.
Directed by: Destin Daniel Cretton
Written by: Destin Daniel Cretton
Starring: Brie Larson, John Gallagher, Jr, Kaitlyn Dever, Rami Malek, Keith Stanfield
Running Time: 96 minutes