DIR. Destin Cretton. Starring: Brie Larson, John Gallagher Jr., Remi Malek
Hands down one of my favourite films of the year so far.
Short Term 12 sees Brie Larson (21 Jump Street, Spectacular Now) give a raw and thoughtful performance as care-worker Grace, struggling with her own suppressed parental issues. Likened to Jennifer Lawrence’s breakout turn in Winter’s Bone, Larson too gives bare-fared-bravery-conquers-all a go, and she too shades it with vulnerability, courage and moments of understated perfection. The smiling through the cake scene is perhaps the exact moment when she won me over.
The audience are inducted into the chaotic and colourful world of the foster care institution alongside newbie Nate (Rami Malek – 24, The Pacific). He’s wide-eyed, naïve and full of good intentions – ripe for mal-adjusted teenagers to rip apart. His learning curve becomes ours, as we get to know the characters in the facility and see them as more than ‘underprivileged’ kids with problems. Cleverly, the narrative divides most of its time to exploring the stories of two kids in the facility. One whom has just arrived – surly teenager Jayden, and one whom is just about to leave – budding rapper Marcus. It’s through their eyes and on their journeys to what we hope is recovery that we learn about the ups and downs of the care system.
However, the film doesn’t just stop there. It’s allows many of the peripheral characters moments of narrative intrusion and quiet potency, giving us a rounded interpretation of the foster community. It also acknowledges the system possesses flaws – where the therapists don’t always make the best judgments, where the hierarchy can let vulnerable people fall through the cracks and where emotion or personal experience can overwhelm those who should know better.
The theme of cyclicality is foregrounded throughout. Deployed in the comings and goings of residents, and emphasised during a symmetrical ‘frame’ scene that also gives way to the most uplifting finale I’ve seen in a while.
Moreover, it tries to explore the wider impact and offshoots of the system. Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), Grace’s boyfriend and colleague, for instance is part of an extended and loving foster care family, depicting the positive effects of human generosity in the face of adversity. Gallagher Jr. also manages to traverse the fine line between understanding boyfriend and pushover, taking all of Grace’s doubts and hesitancies in his stride. Theirs is a relationship you root for – just two people trying to overcome the obstacles life throws their way.
Problematically, Short Term 12 does suggest there are cures for everyone’s problems and that the current care system will eventually reach out to all and encourage them to speak about their issues. And equally indulges in a few character clichés – black kid Marcus with aggressive tendencies, expresses himself through rap (though the close-up camera work and amazing lyrics during one performance are indelibly poignant and heartfelt) and smart-ass Jayden, who is rebelling against the world with kohl-rimmed eyes and sinister diary drawings. The cynic in me could call them clichés. But the performances given bring another dimension to these characters, and they become people rather than stereotypes.
Director Destin Cretton turns in an impressive debut film, handling the content and his actors sensitively, and circumventing the mawkish or melodramatic elements of the material. What he lacks in originality, he makes up for with charm and good intention. Overall it’s a wonderfully positive film, where the light conquers the darkness. Indeed, the ending is almost too good to be true, and comes very close to saccharine where the rest of the film has managed restrain. However, I think the film suggests the story told can be fictional and true at the same time – as long as we believe in the potential for it to be true, then the film has done it’s job.
Verdict: Nuanced, powerful and mesmerising. See it for Brie alone. It’s one that will stay with you for the long term