Editor’s note: Allison’s review of Short Term 12 originally ran during this year’s LAFF, but we’re re-posting it now as the film opens in limited theatrical release.
What kind of parent do you think you will be? That’s a big question, and one that usually doesn’t come up until you are actually face-to-face with the prospect. Grace (Brie Larson) works at a foster care facility, the eponymous Short Term 12, and is clearly in a loving (albeit not very well hidden) relationship with her boyfriend and fellow facility staff member, Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) But even though she works with kids all day, the idea of having one of her own has Grace completely spooked. This fear is not completely unsurprising considering the first few moments we spend in Short Term 12 see Mason telling a new hire, Nate (Rami Malek), a ridiculous story about his first day and a kid who tried to run away, only to then have one of the current kids burst through the front doors, hightailing it to the gates. Grace and Mason do not miss a beat in chasing down Sammy (Alex Calloway) and calming him down, but it becomes very clear in that moment that the residents of Short Term 12 are dealing with big issues of their own.
Grace is the “boss” and very much in control of the facility, but when Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) comes to stay with them, something about their newest resident causes Grace to start to unravel. Grace tries to connect with Jayden to get her to open up, but in doing so she finds herself relating to and recognizing parts of herself in the troubled young girl, and the similarities start to drudge up some deeply repressed issues in Grace. Larson and Dever turn in affecting performances in these moments, sometimes never even needing to say a word, but the sudden focus on Jayden felt a bit rushed and could have worked better if she came to the forefront through her interactions with the other, just as troubled, kids.
Short Term 12 will having you laughing one minute and tearing up in the next. The kids in the facility (much like any facility like this) are complicated and have seen more life than anyone their age ever should, making the stunning performances of the actors playing them all the more powerful. The idea of growing up and “leaving the nest,” so to speak, would be all the more terrifying for someone who has only experienced pain and fear on the other side of the Short Term 12 gates and Keith Stanfield in particular brings this fear to life through a memorable performance as Marcus, a tough kid trying desperately to overcome his past and conceal the heart on his sleeve.
Larson and Gallagher shine as Grace and Mason, a couple with complicated backgrounds of their own, trying to find peace and happiness in each other while realizing their pasts will always be a part of them. A stark, but realistic landscape from cinematographer Brett Pawlak and a stripped down score from Joel P. West add to the tone of the film without taking away from the performances.
Director Destin Cretton creates a narrative that presents big questions, but never preaches the answers. Can you help those you may relate to too much? Do past scars ever truly heal? Short Term 12 shows that you may never escape your past, but you can certainly decide your future.
The Upside: Strong narrative filled with fully realized characters; memorable performances from Larson, Gallagher, Dever, and Stanfield; restrained score allows the actors to express the film’s complex emotions instead of the music.
The Downside: Slightly rushed relationship between Grace and Jayden.
On the Side: Gallagher credited Cretton for the natural and layered rapport between Grace and Mason thanks to the director giving the two an envelope of questions to answer when they first met over dinner, which helped the actors get to know both each other, and their characters, better.