Thursday 16 January 2020

Movie Review: Short Term 12 (2013)

A social drama, Short Term 12 explores the world of troubled young adults with mature awareness.

In Los Angeles, Grace (Brie Larson) and Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) are supervisors at the Short Term 12 group home for troubled teenagers, and help rookie supervisor Nate (Rami Malek) settle in. Not much older than the young adults they look after, Grace and Mason are in a relationship, although she has trouble expressing her feelings and talking about her own troubled past. When she finds out she is pregnant, Grace initially schedules an abortion, but later confides in Mason.

The residents include Marcus (Lakeith Stanfield), who is gloomy as he approaches his 18th birthday. Sammy (Alex Calloway) is deeply insecure, has fits of screaming and often attempts to escape. Luis (Kevin Hernandez) is cocky and spends most of his time antagonizing Marcus. 15 year old Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) is a new arrivee with a sour attitude, claiming her dad will take her home for the weekend. Grace tries to reach out and establish a connection with Jayden, as she senses a common background drawing them together.

The continuum between caregiver and care receiver, and the firm tenderness and intelligent empathy required to manage teens going through traumas, are weighty topics for a movie to address. Director and writer Destin Daniel Cretton tackles the difficult terrain with a firm hand and credible sensitivity, and the independently produced Short Term 12 emerges as a remarkably confident and memorable effort. Running an efficient 96 minutes, the film stays within itself as an individual-scaled snapshot of humans in transition.

Cretton draws compelling characters and slowly reveals their internal struggles. Grace emerges as the heart of the film, a woman not far removed from her own agonies, now doing her best to steer teenagers to calmer waters. Brie Larson delivers a breakthrough performance surfacing Grace's dichotomy of a strong desire to help others coexisting with an inability to confront her own past.

Grace is inexorably drawn to provide the support that she never received. She sees a version of herself in Jayden, who at 15 years old is an expert in pushing everyone away as a defence mechanism and is still living in the shadow of an unstated horror. Kaitlyn Dever teases out hints of Jayden's vulnerability while building her sturdy emotional resilience with surly postures.

Cretton is interested in the troubled teenagers as tragic symptoms of multiple social ills. In a heartbreaking scene, Marcus recounts his childhood story and the resultant rage within him through rap lyrics. But here both the kids and the horrors they are escaping hide in plain sight. The film features sparse and realistic sets, capturing a modest and mostly nondescript aesthetic. Short Term 12 is just a large house with multiple rooms, and from the outside most resembles a school campus.

And once they cross the threshold of 18, the kids age out of the system and are essentially on their own, a prospect causing Marcus enormous stress. The number ticks over, but the scars run deep and the vulnerabilities continue well into adulthood, as Grace knows only too well.

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