Starring: Brie Larson, John Gallagher Jr, Kaitlyn Dever, Rami Malek, Keith Stanfield, Kevin Hernandez, Melora Walters, Frantz Turner, Alex Calloway
Running Time: 97 min.
★★★★ (out of ★★★★)
You can just tell when a movie's telling the truth. When a movie's being completely honest, no strings are being pulled and no games being played. It's like you're disappearing into the lives of the characters, and only when the final credits roll is it possible to entertain the fact they're not real people. Going on description alone, Short Term 12 almost has no business being as great as it is. On paper, there's nothing particularly remarkable about the story. The cast is comprised mostly of unknowns, while writer/director Destin Cretton is similarly untested. And yet, despite a tiny budget and very little promotion, the small indie feels bigger than any blockbuster because all the cogs in the machine are working in perfect harmony. Despite being one of the best reviewed films of the year, it still somehow manages to overperform, exceeding those expectations by simply keeping it raw and real.
The theatrical poster captures a scene I was curious to see play out in the actual film to discover its context. It turns out to be its final one, but revealing that spoils nothing since all of the film's power is contained in each minute leading up to it. It's ultimately a story about stories. Stories people tell themselves and others to get through the pain and those they tell to conceal the truth of what they're actually going through. It's also a reminder how many trudge through life with all kinds of buried problems no one even knows about, somehow able to normally function. Until finally they can't. And at its core is the best performance given by any actor, male or female, in the past year.
Grace (Brie Larson) is a twenty-something supervisor at Short Term 12, a group home facility for troubled teens. In most cases, it's just a short stop before they get where they're going. Hopefully it's home, even if for some that may not be such a hopeful scenario. Her co-worker and live-in boyfriend is Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) and the film opens with both of them showing quiet new employee Nate (Rami Malek) the ropes and explaining rules and procedures. Their job isn't to be these kids' friends or therapists, but make sure they stay out of trouble and keep occupied with various activities. It's more exhausting than it seems, as most are still wrestling with the emotional issues that landed them there, causing the job to sometimes more closely resemble that of a parole or corrections officer than a social worker.
If a kid escapes and leaves the grounds, they can be followed, but that's it. They're basically gone. The arrival of Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), a morose teen with a history of self-harm brings a painful personal event to the surface for Grace that she's long buried. Something not even Mason knows and she's willing to destroy their relationship to avoid talking about. Sensing a girl silently crying out for help in a way only she seems to recognize, Grace breaks the rules, reaching out to Kaitlyn, putting both her job and relationship in jeopardy, while painfully confronting her own emotional demons.
From the minute this starts, it feels as if we've been dropped in a documentary about troubled teens and the counselors who work with them. It looks and sounds that authentic, as if we're seeing non-rehearsed moments we shouldn't even be allowed to witness. Those who have worked in a facility like this would obviously have a better idea of how close to reality this veers, but considering Cretton spent time at such a facility for a few months (before turning his real-life experience into the short student film this is expanded from) it's safe to say it's probably pretty accurate. That Grace is the picture of competence and composure at her job makes all that comes later that much more powerful when she's unable to take her own advice. It's different when it's you. Her and Mason at work is a case study in itself since they use all these little tricks to control the kids and earn their respect, if even just temporarily. There are little nuggets of this in every scene, especially evident when they're training the newbie and we see all the things he does wrong, yet also some of the potential buried within those rookie mistakes. There seems to be a constant battle between following protocol and being there for the kids, but not too much.
When the bomb drops about Grace's past, the film doesn't treat it as a shock or surprise because it isn't. It was all there the whole time in Brie Larson's performance, which is what makes it such a tightrope walk. We know Grace because we know people just like her. One of the toughest things to convey as actor are hidden reserves of surprising strength or deep pain. In this role Larson is able to do both, sometimes at once, and because we start with so much respect for the character and her relationship with her boyfriend and to these teens, when she's forced to pull back the curtain on her life, the reveal is almost unbearable to take. Brought to her knees emotionally by her own past, we see her go from a pillar of strength to someone who barely has enough confidence to function. After being the best thing in an already very good 21 Jump Street and bringing a little more to ex-girlfriend parts in Scott Pilgrim and The Spectacular Now, it seemed Larson was following a trajectory similar to that of Emma Stone, which wouldn't have been bad at all. But this changes things. It was hard to predict her capable of digging so deep this soon.
The film's centerpiece scene is the telling of a children's story, carried by the performances of Larson and a revelatory Kaitlyn Dever, along with some really great writing. There's something pure and innocent about the simplicity of a brilliantly conceived children's story, so hearing one delivered in the context it is here makes the revelation coming from it more heartbreaking than if it were presented any other way. Despite coming from the mind of a screenwriter, there's never any doubt hearing it unfold that it's from from the pen of a teenager reaching out for help the only way she knows how. More signs the script is firing on all cylinders comes in the depiction of Grace's boss, Jack (Frantz Turner), who can't act on her pleas that a girl's in serious trouble. It's not that he's an idiot who doesn't listen or an incompetent supervisor as would be the case in a lesser film, but rather because his hands are tied legally. He's a rational guy who cares about the kids and understands Grace's frustration, while also realizing he has to let a valuable employee vent a little and take it out on him. He's also trying to do the best he can, which is a surprisingly nuanced touch for a character that could so easily be a movie stereotype.
This isn't to say the entire film revolves around Jayden and her problems, or even Grace being forced to confront hers. 18-year-old resident Marcus (Keith Stanfield), is struggling with the fact he'll be leaving the facility and worried what awaits him on the other side. His situation is just as compelling as Jayden's, even if we know far less about it. Stanfield's the only actor from Cretton's original short to return for the feature and his frequently wordless performance carries enough quite intensity and vulnerability to tell us all we need about his past, as does the actor/rapper's unforgettable, self-penned song, "So You Know What It's Like."
There are are so many ways this project could have gone wrong. We've seen it before. Tackling this subject matter almost always leads to eye rolls when filmmakers completely bypass the cold, hard truth in favor of taking a sappy, falsely inspirational route. You can argue all day what exactly makes a "perfect" movie, analyzing the acting, writing, directing and cinematography until you're blue in the face, and while this surely comes up aces in those categories, it's always those unpredictable intangible factors that come together to create the total package. Most are invisible. Short Term 12 is listed as running 97 minutes but it could have been 80 minutes or three hours and I wouldn't have noticed the difference. When you're this absorbed, time disappears and the movie's over in the blink of an eye. You can almost hear the slam of a book closing, as the story reaches its logical conclusion, not because someone chose to end it, but because it's over. Cretton and his actors make magic and everyone should see it.