Review: Short Term 12 (2013)

Short Term 12 is a film with beautiful individual moments that feels overly calculated as a whole. Every film is going to be structured to a degree. Every writer calculates where the emotional payoffs will be in their script and how those payoffs will connect with the revelations we learn about the characters over its running time. It’s just that some films are less obvious about this than others. In some films we don’t feel the manipulation happening. Short Term 12, a compassionate independent drama from Destin Cretton, stumbles in this regard, even if its missteps don’t derail the film as a whole.

Following Grace (Brie Larson), a worker at a foster care facility in Los Angeles, Short Term 12 is concerned with how the abusive actions inflicted against us in our past can affect our decisions in our future. All the children at the care facility have been abused in one way or another. They’re victims of neglect or physical abuse or just the everyday issues “underprivileged children” (in the unfortunate words of one character) have to deal with. Some of the children have parents who savagely abused them and although life at the facility isn’t great, they’re scared to leave it for the potential danger of the outside world.

The film opens with Grace and her boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) telling a story to Nate (Rami Malek), a new worker at the facility. It’s about a former kid from the home who ran away one day only to have Mason follow him throughout the city while Mason was sporting a bad case of loose bowels from some burritos. The story ends with Mason shitting himself on a city street while the kid agrees to come back to the home, if only to tell the other kids how Mason had shat all over himself. Of course, the story isn’t exactly over yet. There’s the unfortunate kicker that when the kid was finally released from the facility, he was found dead in a ditch a few days later. All of Short Term 12 is similar to this story. It’s touching and funny, but near the end you start to feel it’s leading to some sort of lesson, that whoever’s telling the story isn’t being entirely honest with you. Then you hear the kicker and go, of course they were building to that.

This kind of manipulative storytelling is most evident in the relationship between Grace and a new kid at the home Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever from Justified). Jayden has an abusive father and she’s a cutter. As the film progresses, we learn much the same thing was true of Grace in the past. By helping Jayden overcome her problems, Grace essentially exorcises her own past traumas. Problem is, Grace and Jayden’s stories essentially mirror each other. I don’t mind characters having parallel story arcs. It’s neat to have a character’s journey reflect that of their protégé or source of conflict, but to have such a one-to-one relationship between the stories is hard to take. It doesn’t seem real. It seems written, which robs it of its emotional impact.

I know the emotional confrontations between Grace and Jayden were moving for many audience members, but I found other, messier scenes in Short Term 12 much more moving. In particular, there’s a scene where Marcus (Keith Stanfield), the oldest kid in the home, is having a rough day and Mason goes to speak with him. Marcus ends up reciting some rap lyrics he wrote and in one unbroken take Marcus lets out all his frustrations and anger at his mom and the adults who betrayed him. It’s a remarkable scene. It’s moving, its bare, it justifies the pervasive close-ups of the Sundance aesthetic, and most of all, its honest. That scene doesn’t play back into the film’s plot. It doesn’t have a mirror scene in the second half of the film. It’s just there to let us into the world of its characters. It’s beautiful.

Too bad the rest of the film doesn’t have such narrative looseness. Short Term 12 is a good film, but it could have been great had more of it embraced the complicated honesty of the scene with Marcus. Children who live with abuse are more complicated than being merely products of that abuse. Sometimes there doesn’t need to be catharsis or understanding at the end of a story. Sometimes being messy and honest is enough.

6 out of 10

Short Term 12 (2013, USA)

Written and directed by Destin Cretton; starring Brie Larson, John Gallagher Jr., Kaitlyn Dever, Stephanie Beatriz, Rami Malek, Frantz Turner, and Keith Stanfield.