You are unlikely to encounter a more unassuming little film than Destin Daniel Cretton’s Short Term 12 — nor a more surprisingly effective one. In all honesty, when I read the premise and the critical gush, I groaned at the prospect of sitting through this. And when I was assailed by a barrage of indiscriminately edited hand-held camera at the onset, my expectations went even lower. And then something unexpected happened as the film took hold: I found myself completely immersed in a story that could easily have been little more than an indie soap opera. The truth is, this tale of 20-something social workers and their charges at a foster care facility probably does qualify as indie soap on a basic level, but it feels remarkably honest for all that. There is no way I ought to have liked this movie — yet I kind of loved it.
Brie Larson (you know, the young lady I recently cited as having the best moment in Don Jon?) stars as Grace, a young woman who seems to be the glue that holds together the foster care facility — along with her boyfriend, Mason (TV and stage actor John Gallagher Jr.). A mixture of humor, care, dedication and identification seems to be what drives her and makes her so effective. (Wisely, the film never quite spells out the exact nature of her identification with the foster kids.) The film pretty much just drops us into this facility and expects us to fend for ourselves, which is also precisely the situation new employee, Nate (Rami Malek, The Master), finds himself facing. Nate gets off on the wrong foot by referring to the occupants as “underprivileged kids.” In many ways, Nate functions as our onscreen alter ego, discovering the workings of the place as we do.
While much of Short Term 12 is set up to offer a series of slice-of-life glimpses into the kids who occupy this world, the largest drama involves an attitude-riddled, affluent white kid, Jayden (TV actress Kaitlyn Dever). She is placed there as a favor to her father for reasons that are sufficiently murky, which draws Grace’s attention. (And it’s not like Grace doesn’t have enough on her mind, considering that she’s pregnant, changing the dynamic of her relationship with Mason.) Slowly, Grace finds her way just far enough into Jayden’s personal world that she gets a pretty good clue as to what’s going on. But this is not the full story.
What makes the film work is that it all feels authentic (and it is based on Cretton’s own experiences as a social worker) and everything that happens and all the characters at least offer the illusion of reality. It is so good at this — in part because it never preaches — that you lose sight of the teen soaper it could so easily have slipped into. Though all the performances are spot on, Brie Larson’s Grace is clearly the standout. There isn’t even a hint of artifice about her performance — she truly seems to be this character. No, this is not, as some have enthused, the best film of the year, but it is a very good one — one that you will one day kick yourself over if you miss it. Rated R for language and brief sexuality.
Starts Friday at Fine Arts Theatre