The lives of teens at a residential facility, somewhere between a foster home and a juvenile detention center, is a universe we've rarely, if ever, been exposed to on film. This is the world that Destin Daniel Cretton takes us into in his first feature film, which is a heartbreaking and emotional character study of a damaged young woman doing her best to help other troubled souls escape from the depths of pain and sorrow she herself has had the misfortune to face.
The big discovery of this movie is Brie Larsen (21 Jump Street, The Spectacular Now) in the lead role as Grace, a 25-year-old former foster child, who now works at Short Term 12 as a line staff member. Not a parent or a therapist, as she tells a new employee, she acts as a guide and sometimes friend to the deeply troubled teens who reside at the facility, encouraging them to talk out their emotions and express themselves through art if necessary. She attempts with all her might to lead them away from the painful future many of them will likely face as adults, when they leave the residence at age 18. But Grace is troubled herself, severely emotionally repressed and with a kind but tough exterior that refuses to let anyone into her own inner world, not even her boyfriend and co-worker Mason (John Gallagher, Jr.), who is never anything but patient and gentle with her, despite her icy and distant demeanor. Brie Larsen plays this incredibly complex character with so much subtlety and expressiveness, especially in her eyes, as you can simply observe her conflicting emotions even when she cannot verbally express them. It's a terrific performance in a role that should launch her into a long career playing intelligent characters. She alternately radiates kindness, anger, resentment and a gift for communicating with and care for young people, as we suspect and soon confirm her own history of tragic abuse is what drives her to help others who've been through similar experiences.
The kids in the care center are standouts as well, especially Keith Stanfield as the sullen and despairing rapper Marcus, and Kaitlyn Dever as the deeply angry Jayden, whom Grace feels a particular kinship with. This sounds like very bleak material and it is for the most part, but the great care with which it's handled, that is with a running strain of hope and optimism make it a warm film at its conclusion, and a life affirming portrait of troubled youth who can benefit from the guidance of those who care enough not to let them fade away. John Gallagher Jr.'s character is also a key presence in the film, as his eternally sunny and sweet disposition, especially with Grace in her harder moments, give the audience a character to connect to and even identify with, as he too comes from a foster background but sees his experience as integral to everything positive he's managed to obtain in his life. This perspective remains throughout the film, and one suspects it's Crettin's own experience in this world (he worked at a facility like this one) that informs his humanist point of view on the subject. A wonderful, hopeful, bleak yet subtly optimistic view of life even under the harshest circumstances, Short Term 12 is one of the must see movies of 2013.