“There is no way not to tell this right,” a cheerful Mason says to his co-workers Grace and Nate as he relates a story while on break outside the drab foster care residence where they work. The same could be said of “Short Term 12,” a thoughtfully executed film that examines a range of emotions, from love and hope to despair and the pain of betrayal in an astonishingly moving ninety-six minutes.
The young people who reside at Short Term 12 are there to escape a variety of chaotic family situations until a safe placement can be found, but they often languish there for years. It is the close interaction of the residents and staff, sometimes painful, often glorious, that makes this movie sing.
Although every character is searingly and realistically portrayed, it is Grace who is the heart of the story. Brought to life by the spectacular Brie Larson, Grace’s gentle, yet firm, exterior masks a difficult past of which the viewer initially gets only brief hints. The first of these comes during a visit to a doctor’s office during which she discusses her pregnancy test results with a nurse. Larson imbues her character with a raw vulnerability, managing to bring a depth of sorrow to that simple word, “once,” when asked whether or not she had been pregnant before. In that one word, the viewer realizes that she is not about to travel an easy road with Grace, and that Short Term’s job is to present that road for what it is, regardless of whether that makes for a comfortable experience for the audience.
Grace is a simultaneous source of joy and frustration for Mason who, in addition to acting as her second-in-command at Short Term 12, is also her boyfriend. He has long been trying to get Grace to take the advice she so readily gives the kids in their care: when it hurts, talk about it. But Mason, played with steady good nature by a scruffy John Gallagher, Jr., takes Grace in sunny stride, a terrifically supportive man who works with her to provide stability to the residents of Short Term 12. These include Marcus (Keith Stanfield), whose looming eighteenth birthday and mandatory release from Short Term 12 is a cause of great personal anxiety; Sammy (Alex Calloway), a thin, sad boy unable to separate himself from a collection of dolls that once belonged to his sister; and Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), an inferno of anger who initially seems poised to upset the delicate balance that Grace and Mason have established. Thrown into this mix are Grace’s boss, Jack (Frantz Turner), and the altruistic Nate (Rami Malek), a new hire who gets in his own way when interacting with the residents.
However, “Short Term 12′ is nothing if not a careful study of the power of love and redemption set against the harshness of the characters’ daily lives. The missteps of various people – Jack, who does not initially believe Grace’s growing suspicions about Jayden’s abusive father; an unseen therapist, who orders the removal of Sammy’s toys to the boy’s severe detriment; the juvenile cruelty tossed at the gentle, dignified yet profoundly wounded Marcus by fellow resident Luis (Kevin Hernandez) – are counterbalanced by the deep love of Mason and Grace for one another, the small kindnesses of the Short Term 12 residents towards the despairing Jayden, and the sense of hope that comes to pervade these people despite their circumstances.
The film ends joyfully, but not neatly, and this is a testament to its writer and director, Hawaiian-born Destin Cretton. In the hands of someone less skillful, “Short Term 12” would have concluded the way so many movies do: efficiently and neatly. Thankfully, “Short Term 12” lacks pretension and avoids garish characterizations. And with performances this good, there is simply no way not to tell this particular story well.
Note: The film won both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Narrative Award at the 2013 SXSW Film Festival.