Short Term 12
(96 minutes, Rated R)
Short Term 12 would have been in my top ten of 2013, however, it seems that its indie-roots severely hurt its Oscar potential. In retrospect, I can complain that the Oscars unrightfully snubbed this, but the consistent mismanagement of potential award-winning films has been a recent staple of studios. Like last year’s Fruitvale Station or Mud, the studio most likely did not know what they had and dumped this fantastic piece during the summer: a time period that exclusively deals with films that blow crap up. And this results in Short Term 12 being forgotten in the shuffle: something that I am afraid will happen with July’s release of Boyhood. Yes, this beautiful independent drama should have been nominated for Best Writing and Best Actress for Brie Larson’s performance: the latter category was one of the weakest in the last decade.
With that said, this follows a 20-something woman named Grace (Brie Larson) who works at a group facility for troubled teenagers. While attempting to balance her life, her co-worker/boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), and the children’s welfare, certain events throw her life into a downward spiral and it appears that Grace is just as troubled as the kids she protects. There is no sweeping revelation; it is just a character piece that happens to have great writing, directing, and acting. And the pitch perfect filmmaking results in something that will keep the audience invested throughout its 96-minute runtime.
First and foremost, the two leads, played by Brie Larson and John Gallagher Jr., deliver some of the best performances of 2013; Larson has been getting all the praise, which is fitting, but John Gallagher Jr. needs to be talked about as well. In a better life, both of them would have been nominated for Academy Awards. The beginning starts with a story from Mason, which perfectly sets up the movie and establishes the leads; particularly, the happy go lucky Mason who is willing to do anything for the introverted Grace. And as the film progresses, the audience begs for the couple to survive; while her refusal to open up about her past is understandable, it causes a constant state of uneasiness, which is already felt with Grace’s day-to-day job. What works with Short Term 12 is its ability to make the audience care with limited time and effort; after the initial scene with Grace and Mason, the audience prematurely wonders what is preventing them from taking the next step, marriage.
Furthermore, the limited 96 minute runtime minimizes the time spent with the children of the group facility; but even with that minimization, the audience still cares. And it is not because they are children; I have seen plenty of Superhero movies where the inclusion of a child character resulted in the collective eye roll of the audience. Now, even though some of the children play bigger roles than others, the viewer cares collectively because of the main characters’ devotion. Mason, Grace, and even the side supervisors (played by Stephanie Beatriz and Rami Malek) all act as avatars: this does not mean they are void of sentiment. Rather, the characters’ investment in the troubled youngsters results in the audience’s devotion as well: affection by association.
And for the most part this technique works because though the teens take up a quarter of the runtime, I always hope for their well-being. However, it also helps that the scenes devoted to the teens are phenomenal: whether Mason or Grace spends time with the brilliant but troubled Marcus (Lakeith Lee Stanfield) or the introverted Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), these moments will leave audience members on the verge of tears. For instance, even though Marcus is present throughout the picture, the sequence where he raps perfectly distinguishes the character from a cliché-troubled teen. The pain in his eyes and lyrics show a boy who is brilliant but does not realize his self-worth. And though him and Jayden get the most screentime, the children with minor roles are given somewhat of a story-arch as well.
With the aforementioned poignancy, it helps that the plot is properly thorough. All the motivations are established and perfectly displayed, but it never seems to falter past its grounded approach. All of these characters would make these decisions if placed in these situations. However, the main problem with Short Term 12 arrives with Grace’s checkered past, which is somewhat easy to guess; as Grace slowly becomes unstable, the picture toes the line between grounded drama and melodramatic farce. But fortunately, the writer and director, Destin Daniel Cretton, knows how to bring the story full circle. The film feels lean with almost every scene working toward its simple ‘everyday conclusion.’ Also, the intense drama, which will leave the viewer emotionally exhausted throughout, is matched with sharp wit and sardonic dialogue. Short Term 12 somehow achieves the impractical task of making the audience cry and laugh in the same scene.
This uncanny ability is a difficult task; and it is due to the directing, just as much as the writing. Cretton’s picture certainly feels like an independent drama, but it is not restricted by its budget. The director uses the smaller scope to his advantage; the guerrilla style helps Short Term 12 feel more personable. The intense close ups establish a connection with the main players, as well as, side characters. At the same time, Cretton has no problem setting up a camera and letting his performers act; this blend of styles shows that the director has a vision, but is also smart enough to play to the strengths of his wonderful cast. On top of that, the score of Short Term 12 by Joel P. West fits perfectly in this world; while its familiar sound is reminiscent of ‘Explosions in the Sky,’ the peaceful score acts as the emotional core.
I cannot efficiently stress the perfection of Short Term 12. It enamored me for 96 minutes, but beware, it will leave most people mentally taxed. The small problems like the melodrama or the weird use of slow motion do not hinder the overall outcome. The investment into Grace during her downward spiral will result in an anxiety filled experience; yet, the grounded approach to her character and surrounding environment leads to the formation of a living and breathing world. Though there will never be a sequel, I long to spend additional time with the group facility and its inhabitants: which is something weird to say when the effect of the picture was an emotionally harrowing journey. It is appalling that this Brie Larson vehicle remained unseen in 2013; and it will be a travesty if Short Term 12 continues to go unnoticed.