Short Term 12: A Long-Term Success?

Catherine Ellsberg ’16
Assistant Arts Editor

Many critics have called Short Term 12 the best film of the year. I can’t say I fully agree; its tear-jerking sentiment is familiar to audiences by now. Or, more accurately, I wouldn’t agree at all, if it weren’t for the small miracle of Brie Larson. The twenty-something actress carries the film, turning a story that could have easily become a cliché into something beautiful and poignant.

The plot may be recognizable: Larson’s character, Grace, manages a home for teens who have been abused, are violent or suicidal, or are simply deemed as “at-risk.” Cue the 1,000 violins, you might be thinking, but there’s rarely a moment when the pain or emotion seems false or empty. Grace is brilliant at her job: she doesn’t attempt to mother or condescend. She manages a perfect balance of authority and playful empathy, often joining in on games with the children or swapping inside jokes about the other workers.      Mainly, though, she talks the teens down off the ledge of despair – a despair keenly and strongly conveyed by a few remarkable actors, including Keith Stanfield and Kaitlyn Dever. In several heartbreaking scenes, Grace does nothing more than just sit and listen to her wards, fighting back her own tears as they struggle to vocalize long-suppressed suffering, whether through honest accounts or made-up stories. During these scenes, Stanfield in particular is near-perfect as a boy who, on the eve of his 18th birthday, prepares to leave the facility, contending with a past of abuse and neglect.

Short Term 12 is an expansion of director Destin Daniel Cretton’s earlier short film of the same title. The transition from short to feature length is sometimes apparent, and there are moments that are occasionally clunky or awkwardly placed. Weaving through the rooms of the foster care-type home – walls decked with bright construction paper cutouts, beds and sofas buried beneath stuffed animals – Cretton captures both its everyday monotony and chaos. Though the hand-held camera invites us in, it occasionally becomes forced, as if life were really lived in shaky footsteps and constant canted angles. Overall, though, Cretton directs with a confident and assured style. As the film progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that Grace is uncannily good at her job for much darker reasons; bit by bit, we learn of her own demons, some violently  shocking. Grace’s co-worker and long-time boyfriend, Mason (a warm and humorous John Gallagher Jr.), attempts to allay Grace’s fears and anxieties as they prepare for their own future together, at one point wishing she would “take the advice” she gives her kids everyday. By now, you might be thinking that this film just sounds overwhelmingly sad.  It is, but its surprising and unexpected hilarity makes it so much more. If nothing else, go for Larson, who, as a character in desperate need of love, earns ours as well.

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