After the frustrating amateur hour of Michel Gondry’s The We And The I and the similar limitations of I Declare War, the gifted young actors of Short Term 12 are a blessing. Under the watchful eye of writer/director Destin Cretton, their interactions with one another and the staffers at the eponymous foster care facility are often comedic, sometimes emotionally raw, and always feel genuine. Though the well-developed setting is one full of powder keg moments from unpredictable characters, it also encourages genuine moments of levity from those trying to preserve the peace. The balance of the humor and heart of everyday events with intense drama proves a remarkably potent combination and one that Cretton and his talented collaborators pull off with impressive skill.
Learning early on that she’s pregnant, supervisor Grace (Brie Larson) struggles with the concept of bringing a child into the troubled world she sees each day at work. Caught in an interesting position, her charges’ damaged souls serve as warning signs of what not to do as a parent while their unexpected moments of humanity and love show the rewards such relationships have to offer. As the hours progress, Cretton introduces the teens’ nuances in creative ways, namely conveying their respective pasts and feelings through art, which for some is the only means their traumatic pasts have left them to openly communicate. An autobiographical rap from Marcus (Keith Stanfield) is a lyrical marvel and jagged in its truth while an allegorical children’s story from Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) connects with the force of a gut-wrenching campfire tale.
Consistent with these organic revelations, the staff of Short Term 12 prove equally full of surprises, if not more so. Grace is gifted in helping the kids and being the kind of positive person they need in their lives, but is less successful in dealing with her own demons, especially when they all come at her at once. In addressing Grace’s difficult past and their hold on her present, Cretton proves deft in the art of suggestions, distributing little clues without special attention yet which add up for the attentive viewer. A comment at a key location, a phone call, and a nervous tic build off one another and similar treatment is given to her boyfriend/co-worker Mason (John Gallagher Jr.). Through simple dialogue at a party, his history is revealed, transforming him from merely a nice guy into a complex person in line with his beloved.
Doing her best to remain cool in increasingly dire circumstances, Grace faces her greatest challenge in recognizing parallels between her and Jayden. Their exchanges, both good and bad, indicate a special connection unseen with the other charges and Grace’s amplified response to Jayden’s aforementioned story alludes to a more personal link that ties in with her other compounded woes. Functioning at such a high level, the film loses a little steam when these artful suspicions are verbalized and confirmed. These eloquent puzzle pieces are more successful arranged on the sly, but the act of sharing has its benefits, too, and remains true to Short Term 12’s overall quest for honesty.
Rated R for language and brief sexuality.
Short Term 12 is currently playing at the Fine Arts Theatre on Biltmore Ave.