Short Term 12 (Cinedigm, R)

Short-Term-12 75The characters are strong, and that’s what matters. The movie is at its best when it just lingers and lets us observe them.

Short-Term-12 500

Not many people have heard of Short Term 12, but those who have are probably excited about it. It premiered earlier this year at the SXSW Film Festival, and the general consensus from those who saw it was that it was pretty much the best thing to happen to movies in a long time. Some of the praise has been so through-the-roof that I went in with ridiculously high expectations. Those expectations weren’t quite met, but that doesn’t mean the movie isn’t really great.

Short Term 12 tells the story of a foster care center for troubled teens. All of the characters are strong, but there are four that really matter. The central figure is Grace, played by Brie Larson. She is one of the counselors at the center, and she seems to be the most effective at talking to the kids, largely because she is still dealing with similar issues in her own past. She is in a relationship with her co-worker, Mason (John Gallagher, Jr.). They are trying to keep it a secret, but even the kids they take care of know about it. Mason is never as interesting as Grace, but their scenes together as a couple feel very genuine.

Of the teens in the facility, two stand out above the rest. One is Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), a new girl who defiantly rejects any attempts to help or understand her. Grace really latches onto her, as both of them have had to contend with abusive fathers. Getting through to Jayden is not only a compelling challenge for Grace, but it allows her to face and deal with her own problems.

The other kid who really steals the show is Marcus, a black teenager who is about to turn 18, and therefore be removed from the institution. Marcus is played by Keith Stanfield, who has only ever appeared in two shorts, including the short film that would grow into Short Term 12. His performance is amazing. It’s the kind of acting I love, where so much of it is told through body language rather than dialogue. He is silent through much of the film, which is powerful in and of itself, but it adds even more power when he breaks out and expresses himself with rap lyrics that address his past. It’s the best scene of the film, and his character is the one I most rooted for. You want Jayden to have some sort of breakthrough, but you really fear for Marcus, and the fact that his age presents a kind of ticking clock raises the stakes significantly.

Those four are the heart and soul of the film, but they are surrounded by believable characters. Even Nate (Rami Malek), a new counselor who only really serves as a device for exposition, gets a subtle reveal that he has a fairly serious case of OCD. I like that the counselors are not just saints, but real people who are still struggling with some of the same issues as the kids. And I like that the kids are real. Even though they are all in similar circumstances, they still poke fun at each other and can come off as assholes.

The characters are strong, and that’s what matters. The movie is at its best when it just lingers and lets us observe them. But writer/director Destin Cretton stumbles slightly when he tries to take the story in different directions. In creating an emotional climax, he presents a fairly cliché sequence, which I didn’t believe Grace would have taken part in. But that is a minor quibble with what is otherwise a pretty great film, one of many that are out right now. It’s not my favorite of the year, but it will be someone’s, and everyone should see it if they have the chance. | Sean Lass

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