A half-naked child streaks across the lawn chased by several twenty-something supervisors. They catch hold of him before he crosses property lines, holding his arms and legs down, letting him calm until he can return to his room under his own power. Shortly thereafter he does, and an easy banter between the supervisors takes over. Within the first few minutes of Short Term 12, viewers know that children living at this way station do not wish to be there, but do not have anywhere else to go. If they do pass the front gate, the supervisors cannot lay a hand on them, and must simply follow them until they decide to return on their own. While this detail proves important as a narrative device, it also establishes a unique relationship between the supervisors and the souls they keep watch over. Ultimately, whatever dark past has landed the children in temporary housing, their caregivers have little power over their fates. They must simply observe and wait, as the children slowly heal from their injuries or spiral into darkness.
Destin Cretton’s second narrative feature began as a short film of the same name, premiering at the Sundance Film Festival in 2009 and walking away with a jury prize. Cretton returns to his foster care facility with a new cast, and centers the drama around the bravura performance of Brie Larson. Playing Grace, the line staff supervisor at Short Term 12, Larson elicits a raw tenderness as she attempts to keep her kids from falling off the edge of the world. Meanwhile, her character’s personal life falters as she learns of a pregnancy and struggles with whether she should have the child. Her relationship with fellow staff member Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) fluctuates between the extremes of loving sweetness and utter isolation. She draws him close then pushes him away, all due to unexplained intimacy issues that want for a slow reveal. Mason bears these pendulum swings valiantly, left with only his love for her to protect him. After he proposes to Grace though, they find themselves at a crossroads and must move forward together or part ways.
Complicating matters, Grace begins to see something of her own troubled childhood in the facility’s newly admitted Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever). The two form a grudging friendship, draw sketches together and trade witticisms, and in Jayden’s struggles the audience begins to learn more of the burden Grace carries. These events unfold naturally, and Grace’s story effortlessly feeds into Jayden’s own, so that by the time the film winds down both hold on to their dim futures by tooth and by nail. Of course, a film like this thrives on concealment, so the plot summary must end there. Suffice it to say, Cretton has created a deeply felt narrative work that could not have been brought to life without Larson commanding the screen with such, and you must forgive the word choice but it is fitting, grace.
Short Term debuted at this year’s SXSW film festival, swiftly winning both the narrative grand jury prize and an audience award, and it poises Larson for a breakout year. Having already taken part in festival favorites Don Jon (2013) and The Spectacular Now (2013), Cretton’s superb script gives the actress something with more substance and complexity to work with. As for the writer/director himself, he follows his reasonably well received I Am Not a Hipster (2012) with a film that surpasses it in most every way. The beauty of Short Term lies in a brooding tension felt just beneath its own strained familial environment. For instance, two children in the facility fight like siblings, with one ultimately accused of killing the other’s fish in a fit of jealousy. In a normal family, the matter might be smoothed out with a calm talk and a bit of time. In Short Term 12, a day passes and the supervisors assume the matter settled, until one child slits his wrists in the other’s room.
Throughout the film, monstrous behavior born from abuse flares up without warning, and a supervisor’s ability to keep a calm exterior must weigh heavy once outside the facility’s washed out corridors. And yet, perhaps the most intriguing part of the film lies in Grace’s need to take refuge in Short Term 12’s dysfunctional surroundings. It only occurs to the audience later on that this might be because she finds herself at home there. It must follow, then, that given the choice to make a new home with her partner, and to bring a new life into this world, she waits and questions which she life suits her. Will it be a broken woman finding solace in mending the hurt of others? Or a woman mending her harrowed past life through the joy and hope a new family offers? The answer might seem simple, but as with anything in life it cannot be solved as readily as one might like it.
Jacob Mertens is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.