by Kevin Powers
|Brie Larson and John Gallagher, Jr. chase down a troubled youngster in Short Term 12.|
Early on in this film, a new counselor at a juvenile inpatient treatment center introduces himself and makes the mistake of saying that he "always wanted to work with underprivileged kids." A quiet, sad-looking kid named Marcus blows up. "What do you mean by that!!?" Marcus knows he is "underprivileged," yet he also knows he must defend himself from that label. That is the power of this film. It raises the ultimate questions one finds when dealing with teens from bad home lives. Those being: Can I make it out? Will I have a good life? Am I doomed to be miserable?
Written and Directed by Daniel Destin Cretton
Starring Brie Larson, Frantz Turner, John Gallagher, Jr., and Kaitlyn Dever
Destin Daniel Cretton's Short Term 12 is a rewarding movie experience. It follows a week in the life of a twenty-something teen counselor named Grace (Brie Larson), who finds herself dealing with her own abusive, troubled past when a new girl named Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) arrives at the facility. Grace is good at her job, even loves it. She shares a small house with her co-worker boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher, Jr.), a loving, supportive man. She finds out she's pregnant and that her abusive father, who went to prison on her testimony, will be released in the coming weeks. It's a brutal week on top of the fact that she works and deals in the most basic, harsh human pain.
I realize I'm making this movie sound like a dark, depressing slog-fest. Not the case. Cretton's direction is assured. Simple, realistic, he and his director of photography, Brett Pawlak, use handheld cameras, everything is close, in your face, real. It has all the trappings of an "indie film," yet it's elevated by the simple power of the story being told. Destin Cretton, once a youth counselor himself, obviously lived this life. In that, Short Term 12 is a labor of love.
Brie Larson is a phenomenal actress. She has done some great supporting work in recent years. In the Showtime dramedy United States of Tara, she played the quick-witted, rebellious daughter of a woman with multiple-personality disorder. She has also delivered a some solid work in feature films like last year's The Spectacular Now and Don Jon. She plays characters with a quiet, confident calm. This, her first starring role, is no different. Only this time, tasked with carrying a movie, she proves that a long, quality career awaits her. I honestly don't see, in a year with pretty weak performances in the Leading Actress category, how Oscar missed her. Her performance here is certainly worth a nod.
The rest of the cast shines as well. John Gallagher, Jr. of HBO's The Newsroom shows a different side of himself . Whereas his Jim in The Newsroom is a sharp and quick, clean-cut news producer, here his scruffy, shaggy-haired Mason is calm and understanding. As the girl put in the charge of Grace and Mason and the team at "Short Term 12," Kaitlyn Dever is daring and real. In her, Grace sees herself and must face the demons that have haunted her for so long, that now haunt young Jayden.
How hard it must be to have lived through abuse and neglect and abandonment. We see the ensuing rage of "the kids" at "Short Term 12." The tantrums, the outbursts, the bad attitudes, the self-harm. Cretton's screenplay and confident direction make us feel that feeling. The feeling of being alone and unsure and scared. Luckily, there are people like Grace and Mason, people in our real world existence that live to create safe environments and comforts for those forced to deal with such pain, people who sit down and listen to what these kids have to say, admires their rap lyrics or drawings or stories.
As a middle school teacher, I've seen my fair share of troubled youths. You can easily spot them. They're the ones who argue, who defy any authority, who seem sad and beaten down, who build barriers of protection around themselves. If you're lucky, you get through to them. You become one small, yet significant, piece of brightness, hope in an otherwise hard life. This is what people like Grace and Mason, counselors and teachers and therapists, try to do. So, maybe you have to chase down a screaming kid running across the lawn once in a while, let a kid cry on your shoulder, cuss it out of their system. Helping a troubled kid takes guts and stamina and empathy and understanding. Some have those qualities, some don't. Grace does.
Short Term 12 is an underprivileged movie. Made on a low-budget, digging into subject matter that is difficult and challenging, movies like this hardly see the light of day. This is a film that is perfect for teenagers, yet I guarantee you if I polled my local high school, none of them would have heard about it. I often find that the smaller, more intimate movies are often better. I know of several young people who could benefit greatly from a viewing Short Term 12. I can only hope that they will rise above and seek out the movies that cruise underneath the hype.