Short Term 12 is a compassionate and personal look into the lives of at-risk youth and those who take them in. Director Destin Cretton spent some years working in a home like the one in the film, and he modeled the clumsy yet eager character Nate (Rami Malek) after his own stumbling start as a caretaker.
Innocent misunderstandings and mistakes provide a few moments of levity, but the lack of understanding that the troubled youth face as they seek to know themselves and their place among others is the animating force of the narrative. The tone is as dour as one might expect it to be, but it still evokes a faith in empathy when understanding is impossible.
The camera unsteadily follows those living and working at the eponymous Short Term 12 facility, zooming in for close-ups on faces and hands, focusing in a way that comes to say far more than dialogue ever could, as buried anger and sorrows seethe to the surface. The film’s strong performances speak to a real communication between the actors and the director. Caretakers Grace (Brie Larson) and Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) are seeing each other outside of work and on the cusp of beginning their lives together. When distant and damaged Jayden (Kaitlyn Denver) arrives at the home, she unknowingly becomes the catalyst for Grace to confront her own troubled past. Meanwhile, Keith Stanfield shines with a burning intensity as a young ward named Marcus, who, on the edge of adulthood, requests that his head be shaved, and unknowingly initiates his own rite of passage.
For sensitive viewers, the film establishes a certain paranoia and dread familiar to those in the Short Term 12 facility. Even in more lighthearted moments, one cannot shake the sense that something will soon disrupt the happiness and equilibrium. One actually breathes easier when the trouble comes. As exhausting as this is, when one remembers that these characters live in that state perpetually and it feeds into their fear of opening up and allowing for affection, the audience, too, may leave with more empathy for at-risk youth, as troubled and volatile as they may be.
Short Term 12 has already garnered acclaim by taking both the Grand Jury Award and Audience Award for Film at the 2013 SXSW. I hope that the film will continue to find an even wider audience. It is uncompromising in its content and has the potential to have a powerful effect on those who see it, as it takes one through the frustration, the scars, the hurt and even the small wonders encountered on the margins.
Short Term 12 is playing ay The Varsity Theatre.