Taking place in and around the community of a group home, Short Term 12 looks into the life of a few kids as they deal with life and the bonds they form with their supervising staff; in particular, Grace, the site’s staff leader. Told in 3 pretty distinct parts, we follow Grace as she works with a young man, Marcus, as he is about to leave the home, a young girl, Jayden, as she enters the home and all the drama that unfolds as their lives come crashing together.
The world that director Destin Cretton creates in the film is so wonderfully realized and executed I can almost understand why he tried to do what he did in the film’s final act. Everything feels so authentic and true to life with all of the characters feeling lived in. Cretton gets all of the details right surrounding a group home and he handles some pretty dark material, makes the audience feel it and does so without ever making the audience feel like they want to curl up into a deep depression. The film is full of emotion, I cried multiple times, but whether they are tears of sadness and joy they are always earned.
That is why I was so upset that Cretton decides to just force all of this drama and unnecessary manipulation into the third act; losing the natural flow of the film in the process. Marcus’ story with Grace and Mason is perfectly executed, there is an emotional catharsis for everyone involved, yet Cretton drags Marcus back (on terribly weak pretenses might I add; really, a fish?) into the final act only to mostly forget about him until the end. What makes this even more egregious is that the ending that he gives Marcus has no bearing on the events that unfold in the final act. It’s pure emotional manipulation by trying to mess with a character we have come to love and while it doesn’t ruin the film it just rings so false. Collapsing all of these traumatic events on Grace in one day just felt so unrealistic and I was baffled that Cretton felt he had to blatantly manipulate the plot. Especially after so wonderfully and naturally creating drama and emotion with ease for most of the film.
Grace’s personal life was the weak link of the film all along and it just feels less authentic as they try and force that world into her work world. Grace as a character is incredibly deep, well written and fully realized, but I wish the catalyst for us learning the intimate details of her life wasn’t triggered by a moment that feels so out of place in this film. Grace’s protective nature of Jayden is brilliantly built up, but the lengths that the film has her almost go to protect her, even if it is fueled by Grace’s own past trauma boiling to the surface, was too far over the top. Grace being a victim herself brings so much to her character and why she can create such wonderful connections with these kids, but nothing in her past makes me think she is capable of going to the lengths she does. It’s like Cretton was making another movie for twenty five minutes, like an after school special horror film, and it was such a misstep that I think it diminished much of the impact of some actual earned emotion in those final moments. I love where they take Jayden and Grace’s relationship, but I wish they didn’t have to go to such extremes to get them there.
But enough picking on this film, where it falters it doesn’t ruin the film and where it soars it is better than anything else I’ve seen this year. 2/3 of the way through this film I was ready to unseat my number one film and that was in large part due to the work of Keith Stanfield as Marcus. He is incredible and Stanfield does so much with such subtle acting that it is astonishing that he is working on his first film here. The raw power, emotion and pain he brings to Marcus is palpable and he can be just as heartwarming as he is heartbreaking. The other resident of the house that gets a starring role is Jayden and Kaitlyn Dever is almost as powerful as Stanfield. Jayden’s arc is a bit more familiar, rebellious young teen, but as they peel away her layers Dever helps reveal how deep Jayden’s scars run. Dever can go big when necessary and play the icy glare when necessary, but Cretton’s script perfectly sends her towards the finish. Yes he throws a hiccup in there with Grace’s path, but Jayden’s moment of revelation hits as Dever and Brie Larson have electric chemistry.
Larson is the rock of the film, just as Grace is to Short Term 12, and she plays her part pitch perfect. The trauma Grace is revealed to have gone through would give Larson license to go really far with the performance if she wanted to, but she plays the role so strong and natural that she couldn’t have done it much better. Yes, the script makes her go way over the top, but Larson almost sells it and that is certainly saying something. Larson gives one of the best female performances of the year as she continues to prove she is one of her generations best actors.
The rest of the cast is filled with some strong players with Rami Malek providing some excellent comedic relief as the film wonderfully balances its tone. John Gallagher Jr. is solid as a romantic co-worker for Grace, but I feel like the relationship stuff in the film partially doesn’t work because of him. He can be sweet and funny, but Gallagher is just missing something and might be a bit too precious of a boyfriend for his own good.
I know I spent a bit of this review dogging it, but I really did love this film. The most emotional I have been in the theater was while watching Short Term 12 and Cretton is certainly a director to watch. I wish he didn’t feel the need to make his amazing film feel like a movie, but warts and all it is still one of my favorites of the year. Maybe a second viewing will make my issues go away, but even if they don’t I will enjoy the many perfect moments that are littered across the film.
Short Term 12 is an A-