“Short Term 12,” probably the year’s most powerful feature film to date, could have gone wrong in many, many ways. It could have been an after-school special, or a mawkish social-problem film. It could have been smug, exploitative or politically self-righteous.
But writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton’s film is none of the above. It’s a heart-wrenching, very disturbing story told within a group home for at-risk kids, the kind of place where you just know everyone there has seen and been through things that are absolutely unimaginable for even the average adult. Cretton based the film on his experience working in just such a facility.
The story centers on Grace (Brie Larson), a young woman who works at the home and has suffered a past trauma, the details of which are teased out over the course of the film. She’s in a relationship with Mason (John Gallagher, Jr.), an ex-orphan who works with her at the home. While training a new employee/audience surrogate (Rami Malek), they try to help the kids staying in the home, including Marcus (Keith Stanfield) and Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), a troubled, withdrawn teenage girl.
Larson, as recently as a year or two ago, seemed destined for a career of sexy mean-girl roles- she played Ruxin’s au pair on The League! But after this- and “The Spectacular Now,” in which she also made a huge impression- I think she’s the next Jennifer Lawrence, and “Short Term 12″ is her “Winter’s Bone.” This is such a high degree-of-difficulty performance, and she pulls it off flawlessly.
Dever, who was also in “Spectacular Now” and, when she was much younger, had a memorable arc on Justified, is the other big standout here, as the young girl whose tragic story slowly comes together much in the way Grace’s does.
The structure is also very well done. There’s a framing device that opens and closes the film, involving the employees standing around outside the home and swapping stories, that reminded me a lot of the pre-credit sequences on all of the season premieres of The Wire.
There’s a scene- in which one character reveals something to another through the metaphor of a childrens’ story involving an octopus and a shark- that’s literally one of the most haunting and heartbreaking things I’ve ever seen in a movie.
Much has been made of John Gallagher, Jr. playing the “Jim Halpert part” on Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom- his name on that show is even “Jim Harper”- and now he goes the John Krasinski route of appearing in indie movies while sporting scraggly facial hair.
The subject of child abuse and neglect has been covered quite a bit by movies in recent years- and exploited, pretty shamelessly, by quite a few TV procedurals- but “Short Term 12″ comes at the issue in a creative, powerful, and heartbreaking way. This is a special film.