Short Term 12 is director Destin Cretton’s first feature length film but, if its success is anything to go by, it will not be his last. The film won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award for Best Feature at the 2013 SXSW Festival and, on the whole, brings a refreshing subtlety to a field currently saturated with blockbuster CGI epics. The audience will be forgiven for expecting a gritty film about the challenges of the disadvantaged American youth, perhaps along the lines of Dangerous Minds (1995) or Precious (2009). Instead Cretton’s film strikes the balance between these traumatic and unforgiving stories and indie classics like Juno (2007) and Little Miss Sunshine (2006).
The story revolves around the day to day occurrences in a foster home, focusing in particular on Grace (Brie Larson), head foster worker in the home. Providing various insights into the fostered children and to the misfortunes which brought them into care, the story then centres on the developing relationship between Grace and Jaydyn (Kaitlyn Dever), a new female entrant to the house. As Grace attempts to reach this girl, more of her own past comes to light, revealing the roots of her affinity with the youngster. This central theme is punctuated by scenes depicting Grace’s relationships with fellow care worker Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) and Marcus (Keith Stanfield) and Sammy (Alex Calloway), two of the other children in the care home.
Short Term 12 is understated, but its subtlety allows it to attain levels of sensitivity inaccessible in more hard-hitting films. Avoiding over dramatization the film has no difficulty pulling at the audiences’ emotional heart strings. Marcus’ story in particular is extremely poignant and the part is excellently played by Stanfield. The film also avoids clichés, remaining unpredictable. Right up until the close of the story, it is impossible to tell whether the tale will end happily or tragically, the suspenseful plot, commendable performance and believable characters make it compelling.
Although the film contains moments of extreme emotion (such as Marcus’ rap about his mother), gentle humour allows not just for an alleviation of tension but also makes an important point about children in these sorts of circumstances; they are not just victims but resilient human beings, with a capacity for joy and humour in spite of their misfortunes.
To say that Short Term 12 is upbeat would be to do it an injustice. The plot deals with a serious topic and attempts to give it a realistic treatment; hints of the mundane are included for good measure. Short Term 12’s moments of humour do not detract from the seriousness of the subject matter and likewise, its tension, action and profound sadness does not lead to melodrama. Interconnecting stories, to keep the plot interesting, and both film style and character development allows room for the imagination. All in all, this is an intelligent, understated and unpredictable offering.