The title Short Term 12 refers to the juvenile care facility where young, twenty-something Grace (Brie Larson) works as a supervisor for at-risk teenagers.
“You’re not the parent, you’re not their therapist,” Grace tells Nate (Rami Malek), the newbie on his first day. “You’re here to make a safe environment.” The teens at the foster-care facility are those whose lives are disturbed or aren’t altogether safe with their families. As Grace explains, it’s a place where the kids should feel comfortable before moving on.
But it’s not easy. Among the many teens we get to know, there’s Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), a troubled young girl who leans towards self-cutting and the occasional, explosive tantrum. Then there’s the perpetually angry Marcus (Keith Stanfield), a sullen black teenager who is about to turn eighteen and will soon be leaving the facility. His recent, unpredictable behavior is not looking good for his upcoming release. One of the ways Marcus deals with his inner anger is through rap. “Look into my eyes,” he says, “So you know what it’s like to live a life not knowing what a normal life’s like.”
Grace is dedicated to her work and treats the teens with respect. She’s committed to the work. As the film continues there are elements of Grace’s past that slowly reveal why she is like she is and why she dedicates herself to the facility. The reveals come in short moments, through conversations, through confessions, a word here and there. By the time the story concludes we have a rounded knowledge of Grace and her background and can understand more closely why she connects so well with the teens under her supervision, particularly Jayden, and more importantly, why she acts in a manner towards the end of the film in a way that we would not expect a responsible woman like Grace to act.
Despite its short length, Short Term 12 tells its story in a slow and somewhat indirect style. With its hand-held camera work and its dialog delivered in a natural, overlapping manner, the film often has the feel of a documentary. It’s as if we’re peering in and catching glances of the day to day life within the facility where, like those elements of Grace’s own troubled past, key moments of time spent with these teens are revealed, bit by bit.
The approach catches you off-guard. What may seem meandering suddenly hooks you, and within a short time you’re completely involved. You not only want to know what is going to happen to these teens, but more importantly you want to know what is going to happen to Grace. Brie Larson brings such a warmth and depth to her character you feel this is no ordinary portrayal of a young woman. Grace feels as real as any fictional character can feel. Part of this is due to director/writer Destin Cretton’s script, but a much larger part is due to Brie Larson herself.
When Grace is told she is pregnant she waits for the right moment to tell her live-in boyfriend, Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) who is also a fellow supervisor at the facility. His initial reaction rings true. He doesn’t know how to react. “Give me a minute,” he states, and we worry that this will be another moment of disappointment in Grace’s life, but when Mason returns to the room and announces, “You know we can do this,” you know exactly how Grace is suddenly feeling because we feel that same sense of relief and assurance along with her. Mason and Grace need to be with each other.
Director Destin Cretton previously worked at such a foster care facility and he knows the setting, having based his carefully crafted film on his own experiences. The success of the film is that given its subject, Short Term 12 could have easily depressed, but it doesn’t. By the film’s conclusion and its fade-out it actually lifts spirits in an unpredictable and affecting manner. Time spent in the company of these characters, played so well by these actors, is time well spent.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 96 Minutes Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)