Short Term 122013
Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Stars: Brie Larson, John Gallagher Jr., Kaitlyn Dever
Release Company: Cinedigm
MPAA Rating: R
Working with at-risk teens in a foster care facility ranks among the most challenging occupations you can find. (I have experience in that area as a former special education teacher for emotionally disturbed/behavior disordered along with first hand experince with foster care) The tough love necessary requires balancing compassion with strict discipline. Capturing such an environment on film can be about as tricky. Most never find the balance--veering towards inflexible military standards or becoming overly sappy.
Not so with director Destin Daniel Cretton's Short Term 12. It feels remarkably authentic. Almost immediately the film thrusts viewers inside the facility as a young pre-teen freaks into crisis mode and races outside. Unfazed professional young workers deal with the situation; they've seen this before. Using firm yet gentle restraint, they allow the young man to blow off steam and regain self-control. Not trained as therapists, the house floor workers strive earnestly to be consistent and caring to provide a safe house for their wards.
Instantly Cretton draws us into the professional world that Grace (Brie Larson) inhabits and trust her. She's great with these troubled kids, interacting with them so naturally that the film nearly feels like a documentary in the beginning--Larson doesn't appear to be acting. It's more like she's tutoring us how to deal with these kids as she explains to newbie co-worker Nate (Rami Malek): "You have to be an asshole before you can be their friend." Other rules defining fine lines are cited: sideways hugs only, no touching when outside the group home property, etc.
Cretton follows established indie film rules as well, mostly to advantage. Such a low budget film requires minimal production values and focusing on characters in natural settings. Told from Grace's point of view, Cretton decides on using a hand held camera almost exclusively. Not that the film would suffer irreparably with occasional tripod use, this does emphasize the documentary look and feel of the project.
The plot is very simple and straight forward. Grace is such a solid rock at the group home--extremely competent and continually on top of every situation--that an inevitable challenge must take place. Charming and compassionate co-worker Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) maintains restraint at the work site but is actually Grace's lover. He's a real prince, who patiently allows Grace sufficient space... since she seems to have a few intimacy issues.
That turns out to be an understatement. Grace discovers that she is pregnant (and leans towards having an abortion). Additionally, a new cynical teen charge named Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) has major issues with an abusive father. This directly parallels Grace's long submerged issues, leading to instant bonding with the new teen that puts Grace through an emotional roller coaster.
The film really could have deflated into a manipulative mess of sentiment. But it doesn't. It deals honestly with very real issues that confront anyone who ventures into this domain of raw emotions. Teachers, psychologists, social workers, or anyone who deals with young people sooner or later will deal with a child who is experiencing similar life issues to their own. Unless they have come to terms with this situation themselves, it's going to be very tough to actually help the child. And this is what Cretton's Short Term 12 very effectively explores.