Short Term 12 Review


There’s a moment in Short Term 12, about an hour in, that feels so wildly out of place it will take your breath away. It’s a scene out of any number of movies—a slasher flick, a gangster movie, the Jennifer Lopez vehicle Enough—but certainly not this tender-hearted drama about struggling teenagers and the two formerly-struggling teenagers turned barely-keeping-it-together adults who take care of them. And just when you think Short Term 12 has finally fallen off the tightrope it so expertly navigated for that first hour, a well-placed quip and, shortly thereafter, an emotionally devastating revelation bring it back to a place of unequivocal brilliance.

That’s the film in a nutshell. It toes so many lines—it’s at times almost too mawkish, frenetic, and under-detailed. But it improbably manages to avoid being any of those things. It is, instead, parts an onion-like character piece and a penetrating coming-of-age drama that manages to sprinkle in just enough beneath-the-pain smiles to make the exercise enjoyable. Simply put, it’s a once-in-a-blue-moon movie that’s sure to rank among my very favorites this year.

The film’s title refers to the home for at-risk teens that Grace (Brie Larson) and Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) work at. Both are great at jobs they love, and both are lucky to have found love on the job. Yes, Grace and Mason are together. It’s not a well-kept secret, but they aren’t trying to keep it a secret. Grace, however, is keeping a secret from Mason; she’s pregnant.

While she contemplates having an abortion (it’d be her second) or keeping it, a new girl arrives at Short Term 12. Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) has been in and out of homes like this her whole life; she knows the rules. Grace is taken with this girl almost immediately, and she’s able to connect with Jayden in a way no one—including her father—has been able to. But there’s a reason she’s here, and as things start to go south with Jayden, so they do with Grace. She has some tendencies, and as various pressures in her personal life threaten to boil over, those tendencies begin to show.

One must start with Larson. Acting this good just doesn’t happen very often. It brings to mind Elizabeth Olsen’s breakout turn in Martha Marcy May Marlene in 2011, if not substantially than at least in the sense that it should make the young actress a star. Larson, of course, isn’t a total stranger. She was the romantic lead in 21 Jump Street. She also popped up in The Spectacular Now and Rampart, but to lead a film as good as Short Term 12 and as well as she does is, well, pretty huge and monumentally impressive.

What’s great about the performance is what’s also great about writer/director Destin Cretton’s top-notch screenplay. The film opens with a monologue—one of several laugh-out-loud funny monologues from John Gallagher Jr., who’s also terrific in the film—and while it’s being told, we see Grace as this put-together good samaritan. Along the way, it’s little details—the way she nervously picks her skin, her almost obsessive protectiveness over Jayden—that hint at a dark past. She’s not an open person, however, so there’s a nagging mystery at the heart of the film. It never suffocates us—character very much comes first in Short Term 12—but we’re fed just enough story to remain satisfied throughout.

I really adore Short Term 12 for so many reasons—including its deliberately unpolished look—and it’s a little tricky to define why other than to say I’ve seen films like this many times that fail, moderately or miserably. Not so with Cretton’s feature (based on a short he directed in 2008). It’s an utterly delightful experience. Its subject matter isn’t joyful, but you’ll find joy instead in the perfect way it all comes together.

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