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Short Term 12
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by Jay Seaver

"Definitely one to put on the short list."
5 stars

That "Short Term 12" did very well on the festival circuit is no surprise, but that it managed to get into theaters afterward is a pleasant one. It's pretty great, but it's also the sort of observational movie where the plot emerges rather than announces itself. Those can be wonderful things, but hard sells. Worth it, though, in cases like this.

"Short Term 12" is a county-sponsored group home for at-risk teenagers; though the intention is generally for them to be there weeks or months, it's not uncommon for kids like almost-eighteen-year-old Marcus (Keith Stanfield) to age out. The folks overseeing them are not a whole lot older: Grace (Brie Larson), who reports in to a supervisor but is in charge at the house, is in her mid-twenties, with her boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) and their co-worker Jessica (Stephanie Beatriz) about the same age; the new guy, Nate (Rami Malek), is just out of college. Also new: Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), a cutter who clearly reminds Grace a lot of herself at the same age, sometimes showing just how much she has and hasn't been able to move forward since her own time in places like this.

Though writer/director Destin Cretton (who had previously done a short-film version of the story) initially seems to set things up for the audience to be guided through this environment alongside Nate, he wastes no time in making it clear that Grace is the main focus of the story, although the troubled kids around her are not just going to be props that exist as her reflection. Brie Larson, then, is charged with making Grace singular enough to command the audience's attention without exactly standing out, and she does so in the best way. Her reaction to everything that puts pressure on Grace is note-perfect - the audience can feel the stress on her - but she never becomes larger-than-life; even when acting out, she never feels like she's performing. She's got a personality beyond her issues.

The rest of the cast is very strong, as well. John Gallagher Jr.'s Mason is a sweet complement to Grace, and both Gallagher and Mason provide steady support without overpowering the situation. Rami Malek is not quite comic relief as Nate, but he's amiable enough that the audience can enjoy his cluelessness without thinking much less of him. It's the kids who really get the chance to grab the audience's attention, though. Alex Calloway is a standout as one of the more visibly unstable teens in the house, and it mostly comes from observation. Keith Stanfield and Kaitlyn Dever, meanwhile, get chances to bare their characters' hearts more directly, and those scenes are as heartbreaking as one might hope for, but they're also excellent all the way through, with Stanfield conveying Marcus's shallowly-buried rage and Dever making Jayden a mirror for Grace but still very much being her own person.

Cretton both opens and closes the movie with someone telling a story and having it be interrupted by something the adults have to deal with right away, and that's sort of how he structures the movie - things are happening with Grace and Mason, but so much of their lives are dedicated to these kids that the story keeps going off in different directions. At least, that's how it seems; in actual fact, everything ties back in to their story: For as capable and caring as these young adults are, they are constantly being hammered by the way families can go terribly wrong as they move toward starting their own and they have to figure out if they are up for the job.

An interesting sort of sub-theme comes up as a result, of how the abused have to take care of their own. Even beyond the obvious lines to the effect of how the likes of Nate and their boss Jack (Frantz Turner) are well-meaning and certainly help, but don't know the way Grace and Mason do, Cretton doesn't necessarily try to make the audience understand what these people go through as much as how they help each other. And for as dark as the material can be, there's still a fair amount of hope there - people are trying to help, and even the most damaged folks can potentially build a life afterward.

It's not a complete, final victory, of course - the movie does end on an interruption, with more up in the air than a more commercial film might leave. But it's still an impressive snapshot that becomes a well-told story; here's hoping plenty of folks take the chance to see it in theaters while they can. It's a different experience, but a rewarding one.

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originally posted: 09/08/13 05:32:47
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 South by Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2013 South by Southwest Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Los Angeles Film Festival For more in the 2013 Los Angeles Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Nantucket Film Festival For more in the 2013 Nantucket Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Maui Film Festival For more in the 2013 Maui Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

2/28/14 Miguel Gomez Best drama of 2013 in my book. Similar in style to Boden & Fleck. 5 stars
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  23-Aug-2013 (R)
  DVD: 14-Jan-2014


  DVD: 14-Jan-2014

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