Writer-director Destin Cretton brings us his breakout film in the form of charming yet heart-wrenching drama Short Term 12. After winning the Grand Jury Narrative Feature Award and the Narrative Audience Award at last year’s South by Southwest Film Festival, Short Term 12 has been showered with critical acclaim.
Based on Cretton’s award-winning short film of the same title and loosely based on Cretton’s own experience of working in a children’s shelter, Short Term 12 focuses on Grace (Brie Larson) and the overlap between her personal and professional life. Counselor at a foster care facility for at-risk teenagers, Grace is also in a long term relationship with one of her co-workers, Mason (John Gallagher Jr). The film follows Grace’s day-to-day interactions with different children at the care centre and how, much like the children she cares for, she largely ignores the problems she faces in her personal life. At work, Grace and Mason are struggling to prepare soon-to-be 18 Marcus (Keith Stanfield) for life outside of the care facility whilst also dealing with troubled new arrival Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), whom Grace suspects is experiencing some problems with her father. At home, while she is clearly very much in love with Mason, Grace shows difficulty in truly opening up to him, particularly after some unexpected news that turns Grace’s world into one of confusion. After spending more time with Jayden, Grace realises that they may have more in common than she initially thought and in turn help each other try to get through the problems they face.
Short Term 12 uses natural dialogue that can come across as improvised and documentary-like. The film is tightly scripted and is brought to life by the naturalistic, seemingly effortless style of acting which gives each character a real sincerity. The central and most impressive performance comes from Brie Larson and it is no surprise that she has been nominated for various awards for the film and even beat favourite Cate Blanchett for best actress at last year’s Gotham Awards. Grace is headstrong yet delicate, stern yet compassionate and Larson’s portrayal of Grace is mesmerising. It is a very understated performance yet full of honesty; in just one look, Larson manages to convey a whole spectrum of emotions. This attention to detail gives the impression that Larson has fully embodied the character of Grace and makes for a highly believable and relatable character. The authenticity through which Larson portrays the complex emotions that Grace encounters completely pulls the audience in whilst never being too much or going over-the-top. The film effortlessly shifts between tense, heartfelt moments and light-hearted joking around, something that Cretton has noted as an important trait for the supervisors he met to have when working with vulnerable young people.
Short Term 12’s naturalistic style does not stop at the acting. The beautifully crafted lighting gives a warm glow to the film and a sense of optimism. This is something that surely would have been absent had the film been made as a British social realist drama where we would most likely be presented with a cold, blue-grey foster care centre giving little sense of hope. In British films such as Fish Tank (2009) or Kidulthood (2006) where we see young people with little or no parental influence, the narratives often take a dark or criminal turn which is also reflected in the aesthetic of the film. Conversely, Short Term 12 uses a lot of warm yellows and oranges, mostly cast by sunlight which suggests a somewhat bright, hopeful outlook about their futures.
The work of cinematographer Brett Pawlak is simplistic yet effective in its style. The film is shot predominantly using handheld cameras and largely consists of close-ups, particularly within the foster care facility. The tightly framed shots serve to situate the viewer as close to the emotion being displayed as possible and it feels almost claustrophobic, much like the shelter does for the children. This somewhat observational style reinforces the viewer’s connection to the characters in the film.
The overall naturalistic style of Short Term 12 serves as the perfect backdrop for some strong screenwriting and acting. Despite there being a few predictable moments, particularly with the character of Marcus, the film is a poignant, character-driven piece and Destin Cretton has crafted a beautifully honest piece of work. As for Brie Larson, with so much talent at just 24, we can look forward to seeing much more of her.