'Short Term 12' has long-term depth, meaning

05:00 AM, Sep 12, 2013

Brie Larson stars as a foster care facility supervisor in 'Short Term 12.' Cinedigm/


Written By by Claudia Puig, USA TODAY

Don’t be put off by its forgettable title. Short Term 12 is a deeply memorable film.

This modest, low-budget feature (* * * ½ out of four; rated R; expands Friday to select cities) set in a foster care facility is well-written, terrifically acted and compelling. It deftly avoids sentimentality and offers a window into the lives of believable, multilayered characters.

A movie about troubled and at-risk teens could easily fall into a trap, with mawkish inspirational messages trumping a sense of realism. Or it could be too sad to bear. But in the capable hands of writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton, it is insightful, gutsy and mesmerizing. It helps that Cretton actually worked in a similar place himself.

Brie Larson is superb as Grace, a compassionate and tough supervisor at a short-term foster care facility for teens. Grace doesn’t just oversee the troubled residents; she talks to them openly and clearly cares. But she’s no pushover. She seems ideally suited for the job. But her emotional investment in the teens takes its toll when her own troubled childhood comes back to haunt her.

Grace has a loving and warm relationship with co-worker Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), who is also a capable caretaker and an easygoing presence. Though they’re only a few years older than their charges, the couple are steady and up for the challenges.

Mason and Grace work mightily to help the transition of Marcus (Keith Stanfield), who masks his fear about soon turning 18 and aging out of the facility. Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), an angry new arrival, is creative and connects haltingly with Grace. Adamant that her father will soon be rescuing her, Jayden announces she won’t bother making any friendships while there. Underneath her bravado is a wounded girl that Grace is able to reach by sharing her own tumultuous childhood experiences.

These kids’ anger, loneliness and depression is palpable and sometimes shattering to watch. And while the facility becomes the most stable, safe and nurturing home many of these kids have known, it is only a way station.

Cretton, whose short film on this subject won the U.S. jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 2009, creates a convincing ambiance and avoids caricature in his portraits of the facility’s residents. Marcus is angry, but he expresses his underlying sensitivity in fierce raps. Sammy (Alex Calloway) regularly tries to flee, then retreats to his room for days.

The youthful performance are natural and unaffected, and consequently all the more involving.

Sometimes Grace and Mason are simply focused on keeping the kids safe, confiscating sharp objects and intervening during bloody fights. Psychologists and higher-level administrators there may get the credit and bigger paychecks, but Grace and Mason are the workers in the trenches. They often have a clearer picture of what’s going on and are in a better position to actually make a difference in the lives of these troubled kids.

By interweaving the angst and individual concerns of the workers with those of the teens, the story is nuanced, raw and compelling. An underlying theme of parental abuse and its lasting torments is deeply affecting.

Though achingly honest, the film is never overly earnest or preachy. Loose ends are not tied up neatly. Short Term 12 offers inspiration and redemption, along with grittiness, intimacy and unexpected humor.