Creating an emotional connection with cinematic characters is one of the hardest things to do in the medium. It takes compelling performances, engaging characters, and a strong, but not overwhelming narrative, among other things. Destin Cretton has a good portion of this in his new film “Short Term 12,” which was a big hit at this year’s SXSW film festival, but unfortunately, there are areas that are a bit weaker than others, areas that could have used more work in order to make this the emotionally-powerful film that he appeared to be going for. That’s not to say he wasn’t on the right track with these characters, but it becomes all too clear that he had a few too many ideas for one film.
“Short Term 12” tells the story of workers at a home for underprivileged kids, focusing primarily on Grace (Brie Larson). They look after the standard lot of troubled kids: Marcus (Keith Standfield) is turning 18 and is worried about leaving the home. Sammy (Alex Calloway) is very quiet, likes to play with dolls, and constantly tries to escape. Then there’s the new girl, Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), who believes that she’ll be leaving the home pretty soon to live with her dad. The more Grace learns about Jayden, the more she wants to help her. As it turns out, they’ve gone through similar circumstances involving abusive fathers. It’s rough going with Jayden for a while, but eventually she opens up to Grace, beginning a very strange sort of relationship.
I’ve always found that the most effective emotionally-charged tales are the ones that don’t hit you over the head constantly with scenes that are meant to move you or bring you to tears. While there are a number of scenes that work pretty well in “Short Term 12,” it becomes a film that tries to do so every couple of minutes. Because of this, a lot of the film ends up ringing false. When we should be moved to an emotional response, we find ourselves counting off the number of times they’ve tried to do so instead.
A lot of the problem comes from just how much Cretton tries to squeeze into the film. A lot of the film focuses on Grace and her issues, which involve being pregnant, whether she wants to tell her boyfriend or not, and whether or not she wants to get an abortion. Then there’s her mysterious background, which involves an abusive father who’s apparently in jail, with a release likely in the next month. Cretton tries to combine all of this with her relationships at the home, particularly with Jayden, who eventually opens up about her own abusive father. We even learn that both girls have gone through issues with cutting themselves.
The main focus on Grace inevitably means that a lot of characters are going to get left by the wayside. For instance, her boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), while present for much of the film, hardly gets any development for his character at all. In fact, the most we get is yet another attempt at an emotional punch by having him give a heartfelt speech to his adoptive parents at their anniversary. Then there’s the other kids at the home (Marcus, Sammy, etc.), who pretty much get no development, though, as you can probably guess at this point, they are given a few scenes meant to move the audience.
Cretton needs to realize that you don’t need to hit your audience over the head repeatedly with emotional high notes in order to get a response. A few are fine, but if your characters are well-rounded, engaging, and acted with heart, then they’ll speak perfectly fine for themselves. He also needs to add a little focus to his work. He has several characters here and tries to include stories about all of them, but obviously something like that will not work because you can’t have fully developed stories with all of them in such a short time (96 minutes). They wouldn’t even have to be fully-developed stories if he had bothered to develop some of the minor characters a little more.
Where “Short Term 12” does shine is in the performances. Brie Larson is wonderful as Grace, displaying her broken and benevolent sides with equal skill. Kaitlyn Dever does a fine job of playing the girl who “comes out of her shell,” displaying an interesting range as she goes through her stay at the home. These are performances that didn’t need to be amped up with emotional kicks over and over again. Their talents were more than enough to deliver what was needed.
As I mentioned earlier, walking that fine line of emotional content is tough. Too much and you get a film that feels insincere. Too little and you may not sympathize with the characters enough. It’s a delicate balance that Cretton tipped a little too far in one direction, making it seem like he didn’t trust his actors to deliver enough or that he didn’t trust the audience enough to understand that these are all damaged people in one way or another. Apparently trust is just one more thing that Cretton needs to learn. 2.5/4 stars.
Now playing in limited release.
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