“Short Term 12” is a highly impressive movie that packs an emotional punch. It is all the more impressive given it is only the second feature film by Destin Daniel Cretton who based it on his short film. It is somewhat reminiscent of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” in the sense that it takes the viewers into an establishment they are not familiar, with populated by inmates and their supervisors. The similarities stop there, as the supervisors of the Short Term 12 group home for troubled teens are much nicer but sometimes just as troubled as their charges.
Brie Larson, in one of her best performances so far, stars as Grace the main supervisor of the group home. The rules are of the facility are explained in a simple, but effective way by having the movie open on the day Nate (Rami Malek), a new guy shows up for work. The teens are there until the county decides what to do with them, which can usually take from one to three years. Until then they are the supervisors’ responsibility and must never be allowed to keep sharp objects or keep their doors closed in case they might try to commit suicide. One key rule is if any teen ever runs past the facility’s gate they are out of their jurisdiction and cannot bring them back. Every time someone makes a run for it, it’s a race for the gate.
As Grace explains these rules, she makes it clear they are not these kids’ parents or their therapists. They have to be fair with them, but strict enough to keep them in line. Or as she says it, they have to be a bit of an asshole before being their friends. During her days at the group home Grace appears to be totally in control and demonstrates an ability to connect with the teens, some of which come from very troubled families. However beneath her tough exterior she has troubles of her own, which become apparent when we see her domestic life with her work and life partner Mason (John Gallagher Jr.). Mason loves her deeply and wants to connect with her on emotional level, but she keeps everything all bottled up inside.
Grace eventually comes face-to-face with her own demons after the arrival of Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), a teen with a history of self-harm. Having spent time in many other foster homes before she knows the rules and is very jaded and sarcastic about this latest one. She expects her father to come get her soon, so she has no intention of making friends or participating in any social activities. After a series of serious incidents, Grace realizes there might be something very wrong waiting for Jayden at home. Identifying with Jayden’s history, Grace begins to question whether or not she can keep doing her job.
Alison Brie and Kaitlyn Deve both give outstanding performances, each having some very personal and painful revelations. The rest of the cast is equally great, even if most of the cast had no prior acting experience. Keith Stanfield is especially solid as Marcus, a resident who will soon be old enough to leave the home, but is having trouble getting used to the idea of being out in the world.
All of these characters come off as very real and the intimate way in which the film is shot almost gives it a documentary feel. There is no sugar coating how difficult life can be for these kids, or for the people watching over them.
(“Short Term 12” is available on DVD and Blu-Ray and for streaming on Netflix.)