Strong performances anchor lovely story of compassion, hope
After writer/director Destin Cretton graduated from college, he took a job in a group home for troubled teenagers. Years later, for his film school thesis, he created a short film loosely based on his experiences, which went on to win the Jury Prize for short filmmaking at Sundance in 2009. He has now turned that 20-minute short into a feature-length film of the same name, Short Term 12, and the result is a truly beautiful piece of cinema that speaks to the transcendent power of kindness, understanding, and love.
Short Term 12 is the name of the group home portrayed in the film, so called since the teenagers living there typically are only supposed to stay there short term – 12 months or fewer – until other arrangements can be made. Some end up staying as long as three years, though, but all are required to leave upon reaching age 18. Cretton’s film concerns the “line staff” of this facility – – 20-something day-to-day caretakers who aren’t much older than many of their charges. These staff members, the film tells us, are neither the teenagers’ therapists nor their parents, but more like supportive wiser older siblings providing mentorship, yes, but, more importantly, also stability, routine, and a safe environment. Naturally, though, by spending so much time with the teenagers in their care, the line staff often inadvertently falls into therapist-like roles.
Cretton’s film focuses on four members of the Short Term 12 family: line staffers Grace (Brie Larson, United States of Tara) and her co-worker and live-in boyfriend, Mason (John Gallagher, Jr., Newsroom), and two of the troubled teens, sullen new admit Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) and Marcus (Keith Stanfield), about to age out of the home and feeling conflicted and scared. Rami Malek (The Master) brings balancing elements of humor to the drama as new staffer Nate, fresh and book-smart from academic training, but utterly unprepared for the facility’s anything-can-happen real life chaos.
All the actors do a marvelous job bringing Cretton’s story to life. Freed from Aaron Sorkin’s heady, rapid-fire dialog, John Gallagher, Jr. exhibits sensitivity, warmth, and innate affability as Mason, a consummate storyteller who has a natural ease with the kids, the fellow staff, and especially with Grace. Brie Larson’s Grace is the more complicated character of the two, forced to come to terms with a past she would rather forget when she begins to see herself in troubled Jayden. Larson does a terrific job portraying Grace’s struggle between fear and vulnerability and emotional openness and strength, even as she knows the outcome will affect her job, her relationship with Mason, and her life.
As the emotionally wounded teens, both Stanfield and Dever create richly layered characters whose outer toughness masks inordinately painful pasts. The way these teens and the older staff members relate to and learn from each other never feels trite or false, but always believable, appropriately complex, and inherently true. There is not a character in this picture you won’t be rooting for by the film’s end. The story Cretton has created for these characters is intense and weighty and often heartbreaking, but also by turns humorous, deeply moving, and ultimately hopeful and uplifting.
And if you know any social workers, youth therapists, or foster parents, you may find yourself wanting to take them out for a drink after you watch this film; the work they do is often thankless, but so vital for so many young people who otherwise might be lost or forgotten. Fittingly, just as his original short won accolades at Sundance, Cretton’s feature recently was rewarded at the SXSW Film Festival, winning both the Grand Jury and Audience Awards for Best Narrative Feature. Such honors are more than deserved for a film that does nothing less than remind us what it is to be compassionate, alive, present, and, ultimately, human.
Short Term 12 opens in Bay Area theaters today.