There is an old adage in Hollywood that states something like: wow them at the start, and again at the end, and you have a got a hit. Of course, it takes much more than just that to produce a great film, but the beginning and conclusion are pretty significant components. This goes for all films – action, drama, comedy, horror – blockbusters and indies alike.
So how does a film like Short Term 12 - a straight-forward, character-drive indie drama - manage to wow the audience not just once, but twice? Well, it is simple (so says the critic in hindsight): you tell an amusing, self-contained story – one that opens the film and another that closes it – both of which fall within the greater context and over-arching story of the film itself. Short Term 12’s bookend stories are entertaining in and of themselves, while perfectly divulging just enough pertinent information about the setting, main characters, and their lives to wonderfully set up the film and, ultimately, leave the audience satisfied at its conclusion. But these brilliant mini-stories, of course, are not all the film has to offer . . .
The film centers on Grace, an all-too-fitting name for this 20-something staff member of a foster care facility for underprivileged and abused kids. Things begin to teeter out of her control as she attempts to balance her own troubles with those of the kids in her care.
Actress Brie Larson (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, 21 Jump Street) is a revelation as the resilient, but fragile Grace, a woman trying to make good despite her pent-up insecurities and emotions boiling underneath. She knows firsthand what these kids are going through and her past still affects her decisions today. Close enough to their age to relate, she gives every ounce of herself to them with a savvy mixture of toughness and compassion.
Together with her sweeter-than-you-can-imagine boyfriend/co-worker, Mason (John Gallagher, HBO’s The Newsroom), they do their best to help these troubled kids (and each other), but know that there is only so much they can do - even as Grace often pushes farther than she should. The two actors create a wonderfully believable and identifiable relationship, similar to the bonds they form with the kids.
Though the film focuses mainly on Grace, the kids (though some not so kid-like anymore) provide the most honest, involving, and heart-wrenching scenes of the entire film. The audience never sees their abusers, but their presence is felt in the eyes and psyches of the children they hurt. Standouts include the quiet and intense Marcus (Keith Stanfield), who is on the verge of aging out of the program and uncertain of what comes next, and the fierce, but wounded Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), who puts up a tough front despite her father’s neglect. A third prominent story-within-the-story – about a lonely octopus who befriends a selfish shark – is told to Grace by Jayden. The simple, yet haunting story is utterly heart-breaking and prompts a subtle shift in the film’s direction.
Writer-director Destin Cretton’s simple, observational style really puts his actors’ performances on full display by letting them do the heavy lifting – and it works to the film’s great advantage. The fly-on-the-wall approach allows the film to settle into the center and its inhabitant’s lives unnoticed, almost like a documentary watching each room and each interaction with tremendous honesty and intimacy.
Short Term 12 is a gentle, realistic, and insightful look at an extremely difficult subject matter. Dealing with such emotional topics, it would be easy for the film to fall into the overly melodramatic – or even movie-of-the-week type mawkishness – but Cretton is able to toe the line effectively and bring in just the right amount of humor when needed (rarely is the term comic relief more applicable). On top of that, the film is incredibly well-written and amazingly acted.
It is unlike most films you see today at the theaters and one of my favorite films of the year so far. Short Term 12 is a true achievement that shows the depth and power of what modern indie films can be.
* * * * ½ out of 5 stars
Short Term 12 opens Friday, October 25 at Chalmette Movies at 2:00 and 7:00 p.m. daily.
So come out and support Chalmette Movies (8700 W. Judge Perez Dr.) by catching this new film, so that the theater can continue bringing interesting films like these to the New Orleans-area. Also, visit the theater’s website for more information, directions, showtimes, and ticket prices.
If you enjoyed this story, please subscribe and read Chris's other articles: www.examiner.com/indie-movie-in-new-orleans/chris-henson
Follow me on Twitter: http://twitter.com/#!/thechrishenson
And for all the news & inside scoop on film events happening in & around New Orleans - festivals, screenings, casting, trailers, and much more!