Short Term 12 (2013)
Written & Directed by Destin Daniel Critton
Short Term 12 is a group home for troubled and emotionally-challenged teenagers. The film focuses on Grace, a young supervisor who is in a relationship with coworker Mason. Grace discovers she’s pregnant early on in the picture and spends the rest of the film contemplating if she is capable of being a good parent. Her day to day life puts her right in front of some of the most challenging issues young people face. The children she sees are victims of predatory adults who have used these kids up and spit them out. Grace also has her past as the child of an abuser hanging over her like a dark cloud. A new resident comes to Short Term 12, Jayden, a girl that puts up a cold front to avoid creating personal connections. In Jayden, Grace begins to see her pains and may spiral out of control on a crusade to save Jayden’s life.
If your first real exposure to Brie Larson has been Captain Marvel, then I feel sorry for you. The filmmakers behind Marvel do not play to Larson’s strengths as an actor in any manner, and she ends up like so many superhero actors, a living prop to be posed for computer enhanced set pieces. Short Term 12 is a reminder of how damn good Larson can be when she’s paired with great character-rich material. This film is a great character study of Grace and how the pressures of a career in social work can wear down the psyches of people who are often very young. Larson does an excellent job highlighting how these social workers are great at giving positive advice to help their charges cope but repeatedly fail to apply these techniques to themselves.
Short Term 12 additionally feels like an incubator for some of the great emerging talent of our time. Supporting Larson are John Gallagher Jr as Mason, Rami Malek as new employee Nate, Lakeith Stanfield as resident Marcus, and Stephanie Beatriz as co-worker Jessica. Everyone does an excellent job and feel completely natural in this setting. While they don’t get much screentime as the film focuses on Grace and Mason, everyone adds to the reality of the group home. If you have ever worked in this field or been in schools attended by students in low socio-economic brackets, then the outbursts and breakdowns ring very accurately. I have always admired those people who can work with the most distraught young people, who can take verbal and physical abuse without flinching because I know I do not have that highest level of empathy.
Short Term 12 doesn’t talk down to its audience, and it doesn’t try to present the residents as “cute” or objects of sympathy. These are real humans who want things and are reasonably scared of the outside world. Lakeith Stanfield completely captures the emotions of a young man faced with adulthood but who never had positive adulthood modeled for him. This is a dark reality of the foster system where so many young people age out and then get dumped into the world without the continued support they need. On the flip side, the movie shows Mason’s foster family who has raised dozens of kids, and they appear to be productive people.
The biggest flaw of the movie is that it feels like it’s meant to be a television series instead. There are so many side characters that never get a fair shake, and it would be interesting to explore further. I could imagine spotlight episodes on different workers and residents that flesh out their backgrounds and help the audience in understanding what leads to these leaves of emotional challenges yet how they can still function. The writer-director is trying to do too much and say too many things about way too many characters. The resolutions for so many of them is where the authenticity falls apart. If this were an eight to ten episode series on Showtime or HBO there would be room for stories to breathe so the conclusion of character arcs would feel more natural. The film never sugar coats it’s characters challenges, but I felt there was much more to dig into. While Short Term 12 is a very good film, I can’t help but wonder how good it could be as a series.