Short Term 12 is a moving drama that manages to be both heart-breaking and uplifting. The film could have easily ended up being over-sentimental or cloying, but director Destin Cretton‘s writing and direction have a certain frankness that creates a naturalistic and honest film.
The story is set in a foster-care centre for troubled and at-risk teenagers; the director based parts of Short Term 12 on his own experiences working in a similar centre. It was originally a short film on the same subject, and it was then drawn out into a feature length film. By doing so, he has created a picture that depicts the problems that both the children and their counsellors face in an intimate manner. The film tells the story of Grace (Brie Larson), who was a troubled teen herself, and shows the way she looks after these children in a no-nonsense yet kind way. She has a happy relationship with fellow carer Mason, portrayed excellently by John Gallagher Jr, although just when they start to settle down problems begin arising. Grace’s dark past is slowly revealed over the course of the film; this is triggered by the arrival of Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), whose story reminds Grace so much of her own. Learning more about Jayden’s past awakens dark secrets that Grace has tried to keep suppressed over the years.
The whole film is enhanced greatly by the consistently excellent performances; Brie Larson‘s performance in particular has gained wide recognition, and rightly so. She spectacularly portrays a character that is fragile and broken, yet possesses an air of determination, strength and calm collectedness. Larson and Kaitlyn Dever work together in a beautiful scene where Jayden tells a story about an octopus and a shark, which is a clear metaphor for her life at home; it has the potential to be one of the most powerful dialogue scenes of 2013. Another memorable character is Marcus, portrayed by Keith Stanfield, who is a quiet teenager coming to terms with leaving the facility that has become home. A particularly memorable scene is where he gets his head shaved, and is almost too afraid to look up at himself in the mirror afterwards for fear that he has been left scarred by his mothers beatings. It is the scenes like this that make Short Term 12 what it is; a film that is tender, but laced with gritty realism.
Brett Pawlak‘s handheld camerawork is crucial to maintaining the naturalistic aesthetic of the film. The original short was made with limited funds and was centred around a natural approach using only available light; Cretton and Pawlak also made the feature I Am Not a Hipster in a very similar style, thus developing their signature organic style. There are several points in Short Term 12 where the scenes are shot through a door frame, giving the viewer a sense of being privileged to intimate moments, all whilst reminding viewers that this is in fact still a facility. The facility is seen as being both a haven and a prison, with the film both beginning and ending with the carers preventing a child from running away. The cinematography is noteworthy; it counterbalances the sentimental aspects of the film to maintain authenticity and realism.
Short Term 12 is remarkable in the sense that it manages to teach ‘lessons’ without them being forced. The morals of the story get revealed slowly, very much like the way the layers to the characters get lifted gradually. This is primarily down to Cretton’s carefully crafted script, which carefully builds up emotion and complexity; the film emanates genuine emotion.