Short Term 12
Heading into Short Term 12, you’ll be excused if you think you have a clear idea of the form a Sundance-approved indie about a social worker dealing with at-risk youth will take. Consequently, it’s much to the credit of writer-director Destin Cretton that it takes only one scene for him to assure us that we haven’t a clue what this world looks like or what its inhabitants contend with on any given day.
The film opens as Nate (Rami Malek), the newest staff member at a foster care facility, is being counseled by Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), a more experienced colleague. As Mason recounts a self-effacing (and remarkably scatological) tale about how the job can humble you, his coworker and romantic partner, Grace (Brie Larson), listens attentively, anticipating the punchline she’s heard countless times before. But as things are winding towards that familiar close, one of their charges (Alex Calloway) bolts from the building, necessitating a frantic chase.
With its shifting dynamics, this sublimely scripted and impeccably staged sequence establishes several key aspects to the setting for Cretton’s film. First, Mason’s anecdote details the limits of the social workers’ powers. The ensuing escape attempt not only speaks to how everyone in the facility aspires to free themselves in some form or another, it also demonstrates how quickly circumstances can change. Now with the understanding that a volatile situation can erupt with the slightest provocation, the audience is kept off-balance for the duration of the running time.
While Cretton’s script features many passages of well-realized dialogue—be it Mason’s soliloquy or a teenager rapping about living “a life not knowing what a normal life’s like”—it’s equally laudable for offering pregnant pauses in which tension builds between characters unfamiliar with the concept of trust. Ultimately, it’s because of what goes unsaid in the film that its various onscreen relationships feel authentic and lived in.
At the heart of the film is Grace, who only initially seems to be fittingly named. In the most accomplished turn of her career, Larson brings a fierce determination to her character when she’s in the workplace. However, when she’s alone with Mason—her supposed intimate—we see how she remains tormented by her traumatic past, unable to find a lasting peace or open up completely. It’s an understated, affecting depiction of how the ramifications of childhood abuse linger into adulthood.
The film’s dramatic thrust comes when Jayden (the exceptional Kaitlyn Dever, Justified’s Loretta McCready) arrives at the center. When Grace realizes that the girl’s troubled background parallels the one she survived, she becomes hellbent on exacting vicarious retribution for the indignities she suffered. In these scenes, Cretton and Larson illustrate the perilous position Grace and her colleagues are put in by being forced to constantly revisit their own all-too-recent trials. We come to understand just how vulnerable it leaves them to regression.
As it progresses, Short Term 12 remains rigorously structured in terms of plot; yet it never feels calculated. In fact, the film serves as a fine example of how invisible screenwriting can be. By allowing his characters’ irrational emotions to influence events and instigate key turning points, Cretton capably masks the film’s finely calibrated story mechanics.
And while everything seemingly comes to a head during a key crisis, it’s only fitting that the story ends with a denouement that bookends its opening. Cretton’s clear-eyed film is far too honest to try and convince us that there’s been any sort of profound change for Grace or anyone else. Instead, it’s content to serve as a potent reminder that tentative first steps can be every bit as narratively compelling as great leaps of faith.
Director: Destin Cretton
Writer: Destin Cretton
Starring: Brie Larson, John Gallagher Jr., Kaitlyn Dever, Rami Malek, Alex Calloway, Keith Stanfield
Release Date: Aug. 23, 2013