Short Term 12 is a US indie drama about life in a care home for young adults. It can be serious, funny, dramatic and socially conscious and it is full of fantastic performances from a range of professional and non-professional actors. It is also rarely self-important, preferring to represent its characters realistically rather than making heroes out of them or indulging in quick-fix easy answers.
Grace (Brie Larson) works at a foster care facility, taking charge of helping a series of troubled teenagers through various upheavals in their often too-institutionalised lives. One resident, Marcus (Keith Stanfield) is shortly turning eighteen and must leave the facility but doesn’t want to while a new arrival betrays a dark past (Jayden, played by Kaitlyn Dever). Grace is also in a troubled relationship with co-worker Mason (John Gallagher Jr) and is suffering from her own difficult past, one that she finds impossible to disclose fully to Mason. Her relationship with Jayden causes her inhibitions to unravel, though not always constructively.
Short Term 12 is obviously a well-meaning issue film, the kind that is often shot down by critics who like their films more stylistic and nihilistic, often because it is difficult to write about a film that wears its heart on it’s sleeve, especially when its chosen subject is something most of us would prefer not to see. The film presents a series of troubled teenagers, many with histories of abusive parents, and eloquently details their disconnect from society. Marcus performs a rap midway through the film, which forcefully speaks of dark memories and the barriers between him and a normal life. Director Destin Daniel Cretton films this performance in one long, handheld take, falling in and out of focus, powerfully expressing Marcus’ isolation. It is a well thought out scene, put together with tact and heart. There are a few more scenes that are equally affecting, Cretton soberly representing the reality of these kids without cliché or simplistic solutions.
This is where Short Term 12 succeeds, as a truthful look at some uncomfortable facts. However, it can often fall into the very simplicities that its best scenes avoid. The film slowly starts to focus more on the lives of the care workers, rather than the children – showing Grace and Mason’s lives outside of the facility while the children remain inside. Also, Grace’s story develops too much into melodrama, with the third act dramatics becoming much too unbelievable. Another problem is that the film ends – it is neatly bookended with one child’s escape attempt and most of the characters are given happy endings, which do not necessarily suggest an end to their troubles but do allow an audience to leave the cinema without feeling that more needs to be done. As well as this, the two teenagers that get the most attention, Jayden and Marcus, as well as Grace herself all display highly developed artistic talents – as if their troubles have helped them hone their creativity, a rather stereotypical but also audience-friendly way to represent people with such issues.
However, these criticisms do feel unfair, especially since the film is clearly heartfelt and worthy of praise for tackling a subject that is too easily ignored or avoided in mainstream cinema. Short Term 12’s primary success is in the quality of its performances, particularly Brie Larson (so wasted in 21 Jump Street and Don Jon) and Keith Stanfield (who also appeared in the 2008 short of the same name from which this film was adapted). The film may not display the willingness to fully explore the pain and anguish of such an institution – and Joel P West’s score is certainly too light – but these two actors are fully able to present their troubled characters with a refreshingly honest intensity. Short Term 12 may avoid showing the pain that can surely be all pervasive in such a place but the actors ably pick up the slack.
Short Term 12 is, hence, an indie that is a little too folksy and a little too positive to give a true representation of it’s subject matter – the foster care facility depicted is remarkably free of truly damaged, unreachable children – but it is nonetheless a heartfelt and honest depiction. Free of politics (somewhat disappointingly), Short Term 12 is about care, the sacrifices that are required and what those affected have lost. Though it often doesn’t go much further beyond the surface, it remains a moving addition to socially conscious cinema, examples of which are too rarely seen.