Grace (Brie Larson) and Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) are staff members at a foster care facility. Each one is young, but a veteran of the place. They know the ins and out of all the kids, from the boy who sees as figurines as representations of a lost family to the seventeen year-old almost man on the verge of being kicked out of his home due a physical maturity that may not match the emotional one. We follow both Grace and Mason, who love and live together in perceived secret from colleagues. This is Grace’s story however.
Through the running time of writer/director Destin Cretton’s Short Term 12 it’s revealed piece-by-piece that Grace has as many, if not more, demons she’s wrestling with than the kids she helps. As Mason points out to her, she may be good at telling others to open up about their inner troubles, but she’s not so solid at taking her own advice.
Short Term 12 is a tightrope of a movie, regularly presenting two doors to choose for its path; the simple, neo-realist one and a possible melodramatic one more befitting a Hollywood outing. This is caused by a condensed timeline. We aren’t with Grace over a year of her life; it appears to be about a week. As such, the amount of high-level events that go on (a lost prized possession, possible pregnancy, suicide attempt) threaten to make the narrative a series of heart-poking, manipulative beats.
Thankfully that nonsense is almost entirely out the window. Cretton’s calm storytelling makes all of the madness into one cohesive world. Elegantly introducing exposition and character in the first few minutes, Cretton sets the stakes for his characters – adults and kids – and crafts the heart from genuine characters and performances. That second part is key, for some of the teens making up this foster facility don’t feature many layers. Kaitlyn Dever’s Jayden is a prime example. We know she’s a cutter, draws, is a bit of a wiseass and has issues with her father. These small traits are presented and, until late in the picture, we never learn much more about Jayden. Yet, Cretton gets such natural turns from his cast, it doesn’t matter; these are clear-eyed glimpses of troubled individuals. Deyer’s Jayden is funny and heartbreaking in equal parts; given several showstopper scenes that she plays with a quietness deserving of much acclaim that make the most of the little time we spend her.
Of course, it’s Brie Larson’s show too. Best known for supporting parts in “The United States of Tara” and 21 Jump Street, Larson has been impressing for years. Here is the breakthrough to another level. Grace is a wonderful contradiction to see; confident as can be at work, funny and timid at home. Her scenes with John Gallagher Jr. are stellar, be they funny or romantic or miserable. Larson’s able to throw off a quip about loving her bicycle more than Mason as easily as a line stating a fear of opening up. It’s a moving turn and part of a movie romance head-and-shoulders above 99% of what is out there.
That melodramatic door is flirted with a little in the last act. One character makes a bold, one might say crazed decision that though rooted in a believable emotional spot, comes off as a bit much; the creation of too many bad things all happening in a row. It’s a minor misfire in an otherwise powerful picture, that knows a slice of comedy can go down wonderfully in a drama, and that tears of joy are as warm and welcome as tears of sadness.
Short Term 12 is open in limited release now.