Grace (Brie Larson), a 20-something supervising staff member of a residential treatment facility, navigates the troubled waters of that world alongside her co-worker and longtime boyfriend. Winner of the SXSW Grand Jury Award in 2013.
Sincerity, humility and humour are the defining strengths of this unassuming low-budget drama set in an American foster-care facility. Warning bells may go off at the very idea of a story about 'helping underprivileged kids" – the danger always being of saccharine condescension, or alternately, grim and graphic hopelessness. Rest assured, every touching or heart-warming moment in Short Term 12 (and there are many), is completely earned; and while the problems of the characters are devastating, there’s an earthy warmth and optimism that make this a truly sweet film.
there’s an earthy warmth and optimism
Grace (Brie Larson) is a twenty-something carer at a suburban facility for troubled teens. Prosaically named Short Term 12, the flat brick bungalows are set amid wide green lawns. It’s neither glamorous nor ghastly, and its ordinariness sets the tone for the drama, as does the opening scene in which a wide-eyed new carer (Rami Malek) is initiated during smoko-break with a graphic tale of threatened violence and diarrhoea.
A calm and compassionate young woman in jeans, sneakers and no makeup, Grace is a tower of strength, even though she’s barely older than the kids she monitors. Whether she’s restraining a cursing, runaway boy or having a cupcake rubbed into her hair by a spitting and bleeding girl, she has that rare gift of being fully present but not reacting; of waiting quietly until messy emotions are vented. (This could also be identified as a virtue of the film itself.)
Working alongside Grace is the scruffy and good-natured Mason (John Gallagher Jr. from Newsroom). Grace and Mason keep it professional at work with light banter and sarcastic put-downs, but we come to realise that at home they’re a young couple very much in love, though they’re about to face enormous challenges.
When a rebellious new girl (newcomer Kaitlyn Dever) comes into the home, Grace works hard to connect with her, revealing shards of her own broken history. In the process, her buried demons begin to surface, threatening the safe and productive life she’s created. Perhaps the narrative falters a little in these cathartic crescendos, but it returns to form in the resolution: Grace suits sanity.
There’s a clear-eyed authenticity to this finely crafted but modestly conceived film. Fluid hand-held camera-work and naturalistic lighting veer towards flatness – though perhaps it’s fitting that we see every pore and pimple on a teenager’s face. But combined with a beautiful lilting score, comprised of guitar, piano and string, there are moments of lyrical close-up beauty – like the gorgeously intimate scene in which Grace and Mason dance at his parents’ anniversary fiesta.
Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton (I Am Not a Hipster), who wrote the script based on his own experiences working in a foster facility, the film won both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at the 2013 SXSW Film Festival, and a slew of other awards, including the Best Actress gong for Brie Larson at the 2013 Locarno Film Festival.
Short Term 12 deserves its success with critics and audiences alike, yet it’s a pleasant surprise to see that such simple, performance-driven filmmaking can still break through out of the Indie morass.
Watch 'Short Term 12'
Friday 19 February, 7:40pm on SBS World Movies
Now streaming at SBS On Demand
Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Starring: Brie Larson, Lakeith Stanfield, John Gallagher Jr., Kaitlyn Dever