The miracle of Maui native Destin Cretton’s Short Term 12 is that it features dozens of young actors in the main cast and not one of them ever appears to be acting. While the film is a semi-comic look at the day-to-day experiences of young teens staying at a foster care facility and the barely older grown-ups who care for them, it has a documentary-like presentation and remarkable honesty. This isn’t a flashy, cynical or forced look at the hardships of growing up or self-conscious Oscar bait like Girl Interrupted. Short Term 12 is the real deal, the kind of film that will stun audiences with its emotional depth, authentic, unforced performances and relatable storytelling.
The opening scene sets the stage for what’s to come, as a cluster of workers at the facility, named Short Term 12, tell with amusement and barely concealed shock their on-the-job horror stories to a newcomer. Grace, played by a radiant Brie Larson, leads the group of fresh-out-of-college staff members who are there to offer activities, distraction and comfort to kids of varying ages. Those staying at Short Term 12 are not permitted to leave, often make escape attempts and range from unhappy to unstable teens, trying to process the troubles they’ve experienced in the real world. The bubble of Short Term 12 provides them with a dysfunctional but affectionate family, a sort of commune run by The Lost Boys, with Grace a tireless Peter Pan.
If it sounds anything like One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest for young adults, the comparison is intentional. Cretton’s film shares that film’s gallery of seemingly effortless performances, compassion, surprising humor and powerful moments that catch you off guard. There’s a scene in the film that continues to haunt me, involving a young man given a haircut, worrying about the outcome. I won’t say anything further or hint at what happens, but it’s one of the most moving things I’ve seen all year. So is another scene, in which a young girl opens up to Grace using her gift of storytelling to reveal a painful truth about her past.
Everyone in the cast does outstanding work but Larson’s performance in particular will stay with you. Her inquisitive eyes, ability to convey toughness and thinly veiled vulnerability give Grace a complexity as vivid and touching as the young people she cares for. Larson’s Grace is the film’s heart and, like many in the cast, will likely continue to find work, based on the strength of her acting here.
So much of the screenplay feels lived-in and real, I was disappointed that Cretton gave into melodrama in the third act. A scene of revenge isn’t overdone and doesn’t resort to histrionics but it’s also the only sequence in the movie I didn’t buy. Unlike every other segment of the film, it felt written and somewhat contrived. Thankfully, the late-in-the-movie misstep doesn’t sink or undermine the movie overall, as the closing moments regain the film’s footing.
Here’s a unique drama that will be an eye opener to those unfamiliar with the foster care process, a tear-jerker for those who love a solid comedy/drama and an inspiration for those who seek out great acting in film. Cuckoo’s Nest was the movie that opened my eyes to the potential of layered performance art and this film could very well inspire impressionable actors of all ages.
Cretton’s own rise from a local boy with a dream to an assured, skillful filmmaker alone is a remarkable journey. His film demonstrates how our ability to be genuine, encouraging and loving towards one another is the greatest way to reach those in need.
Short Term 12
★ ★ ★ ★
Rated R / 96 Min.