Review: Short Term 12 (2013)

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Short Term 12 is the heartbreaking yet uplifting indie film of the year.

Outside an average-looking one storey home, three twenty-somethings talk, as a girl, we later meet as Grace (Brie Larson), arrives on her bike, mid conversation, just like the audience. One of them, Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) talks about a comedic run in with an escaped child and a bad burrito before the scene completely changes; a ginger boy runs out of the nearby door and into a park across the road as the group chases him. It’s random and unusual but sets up the entirety of Short Term 12, a film that’s unexpected, quirky and, lastly, untold.

We soon learn that these group of people work at a foster care facility for at risk teenagers. Tough and passionate Grace is the supervisor of the centre and introduces Nate (Rami Malek), a new employee, to the going ons of the hub. Grace’s job is to comfort and manage the children in her care, many of them neglected and unable to trust others around them, with the exception of the staff. But instead of taking on the authoritarian and removed caretaker, she is affectionate and personal with all her foster children, though not necessary.

The story really begins with two significant events: Marcus (Keith Stanfield), a quiet but forceful boy is confronted with turning 18 and must deal with leaving the facility for the first time, as a new arrival Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), a talented but deeply troubled teenager girl struggles to reveal a secret. These occurrences lead Grace to re-evaluate her life and her relationship with Mason, but also lead her to confront her traumatic past, something she has been neglecting for years.

Director Destin Daniel Cretton based Short Term 12 on his experiences working in a similar foster care centre, so the stories seem real and honest without being too emotionally manipulative for the viewers. It’s a quiet film, concerned with exploring the complicated issues of neglect, abuse, foster care and self discovery. Brie Larson is fantastic in the leading role, playing Grace with a sense of empathy and compassion – she’s the perfect worker, helping everyone possible while her own world is slowly falling apart. John Gallagher Jr. is also pleasing as Mason, her confused lover trying to unravel the secrets of the emotionally unavailable Grace.

But the film belongs to the young actors portraying teenagers in the facility.  Two of the most touching moments of the film come from the young actors Stanfield and Dev. An expressive and emotional rap from Marcus about facing the world again after being in foster for such a long time is a scene to not be forgotten, done nicely with Gallagher Jr. Likewise the “bedtime story” of a shark and octopus written and illustrated by Jayden is equally heart wrenching and moving, proving the power of storytelling within film as well as shining a light on the alternative yet still important ways teenagers express themselves emotionally.

The end of the film falters marginally by jumping too forward in time and turning the film into one with a sure ending, though we all know there are supervisors dealing with these issues in foster care facilities currently that are unlikely to end. However this doesn’t detract from everything that came prior, an emotionally powerful and unforgettable film that is real and true. Cretton makes Short Term 12 a story that teaches, rather than sermonises to its viewers, and does so successfully.

5 out of 5 stars.

Short Term 12 opens in selected cinemas December 26, 2013.

Originally published in Aphra Magazine, January 7, 2014.

See the trailer for Short Term 12 below:

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