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Short Term 12 Demands (And Commands) Your Attention


short121Imagine starting a new job at a foster care facility for at-risk children. On your first day you meet your coworkers and hear some of their stories. One colleague gleefully recounts his embarrassing story of an unfortunate combination of his own bowel trouble and a child that broke free from the compound. Suddenly, a screaming boy bolts from the building behind you.

Your storyteller and his seasoned colleague begrudgingly put their coffee down and tell you to follow. The three of you chase down the maniacal boy and restrain him on the ground until his feverish screaming subsides. When your storyteller’s breathing regulates, he finishes the tale of pants-soiling shame as if nothing extraordinary had just occurred.

This is the magnetic opening scene of Short Term 12, the beautiful, gut-wrenching story of broken kids and previously broken adults trying to come to terms with their pasts.

From the start, 12 shows you what life in this treatment facility is like—equal parts communal and tense. The staff members, including the leader Grace (Brie Larson), her boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) and newbie Nate (Rami Malek), work to help these children cope with their anger and sadness through friendship while keeping an official distance since many of the kids are dangerous.

Further complicating matters, the staff must follow the letter of the law and release these kids either to guardians or upon turning 18, as is the case with Marcus (Keith Stanfield).

Short Term 12 Brie Larson and Keith Stanfield

12’s goal is to shed light on these types of facilities and the immensely taxing—and legally restrained—work put in by the staff members, many of whom escaped troubled pasts and now try to lead youths towards better paths. The narrative flow of the film, however, relies on Grace as the focal point, slowly breaking her confidence and releasing gruesome details of her harrowing past.

Writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton asks a lot from Brie Larson and she delivers. Most will know Larson from her more minor roles in 21 Jump Street, Scott Pilgrim and Don Jon, but here she takes center stage with room to fully show her serious talent.

Grace is the cornerstone of the establishment. Every child goes through and deals directly with her. For the most part, she is able to keep that administrative distance, allowing her to bury her own demons. That is, until Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) enters the frame. Jayden’s current issues mirror those of a young Grace. Combine this new addition with an unexpected one in Grace’s belly and her calm demeanor begins to shatter.

Larson perfectly toes the line between too intense and too sincere. On the one hand she is the den mother, protecting her temporary children at all costs. On the other, she is in the same position as these children, stubbornly refusing to work through her issues despite Mason’s genuine love and affection. Fans of The Newsroom will recognize Gallagher’s guy-next-door attitude and notice that it works better with Larson than Alison Pill. The chemistry between Mason and Grace provides a surprising connection between their pasts, present and future.

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The most amazing sequences of 12 showcase Larson’s ability to shrink herself. As Grace’s tenuous grasp on her sense of self loosens, she begins to slip into her childhood mindset. It’s remarkable to watch.

No matter how adult we become on the outside, the horrors of the past can still diminish us to scared children. Larson exemplifies this at varying stages. With each morsel of information Grace divulges, a chunk of her outer shell is removed. Grace attempts to put the pieces back together or shrug off the impending wave of emotion, but something new and unexpected comes crashing down at each stage.

Now, Larson’s performance defies expectations, but 12 receives significant help from its excellent script and supporting performances. Cretton’s script includes heavy dialogue that reveals information subtly and organically. The film covers abuse—physical and emotional—but handles each act with tact and discretion. This comes most prominently from Marcus and Jayden.

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Dever does a superb job portraying a younger version of Grace and the sisterly relationship between Larson and Dever is apparent. The true gem of the film is Stanfield, though. His performance adds weight through a quiet strength that emanates from Stanfield’s melancholy eyes. Marcus is on his way out of the facility and headed towards an unknown, dangerous future. Two scenes in particular—a reading of new rap lyrics and a haircut—are almost literally breathtaking. Stanfield’s pain is utterly captivating and you simply cannot look away.

These scenes stand out, but they are indicative of the film as a whole. I am of the generation that watches movies while not truly “watching” the movie. Some form of distraction comes into play. Not with Short Term 12. Nothing could grasp my attention away from this film for longer than a few seconds. The story is heavy, heartbreaking and leaves you with a pit in your stomach. It’s a world that is often subjected to melodrama and formula in film, but here, for the first time in a while, someone seems to do right by these kids.

(Usually I would post the trailer here, but for such a great film, they made an awful trailer. You can go watch it on the Tube of You…or just watch the movie.)

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