MRR Review: "Short Term 12"

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A 20-something supervising staff member of a foster care facility navigates the troubled waters of that world alongside her co-worker and longtime boyfriend.
3.5

MRR Review: "Short Term 12"

Rating: R (language and brief sexuality)
Length: 96 minutes
Release Date: Aug. 23, 2013
Directed by: Destin Cretton
Genre: Drama

Grace (Brie Larson) is an employee at a group home for troubled children called Short Term 12, which is where the film gets its unusual name. It's at Short Term 12 that she toils daily, trying to bring happiness and hope to her charges, whom she can relate to on a very personal level because she once was in a group home too. Even though many of the kids come from backgrounds and ethnicities very different from hers, they can all bond over their status as foster children who are trying to build a makeshift family.

The days at the group home are stressful because there is always something going on that needs fixing, yet Grace only has so much authority to get things done. It helps that her faithful, ever-gentle boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) also works at the home. Behind closed doors, the lovers steal moments with each other that help them get through the day and fortify them enough to face the tough needs of the kids they dutifully watch over. They have a seemingly sweet relationship and are both devoted to the kids, even the standoffish ones like Marcus (Keith Stanfield), who is heartbreakingly terrified of turning 18 in a week because it means he will have to leave the group home and the closest thing to a family he has ever known.

Grace's world is turned upside down when she finds out she's pregnant. Due to her history as a foster child, the thought of having a child of her own both thrills and terrifies her. Sure, the dreamy and sweet Mason would probably make a good father, but she has doubts about whether she would be a good mother. To make matters worse, a particularly troubled child named Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) is assigned to the home. Jayden's recent abuse brings back a flood of similar memories for Grace, who must now deal with a past she thought was behind her as she figures out what to do about her impending motherhood.

In 2008, director Destin Cretton presented his short film "Short Term 12," and it went on to win the Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival the very next year. The film was one day in the life of a group of counselors working at a group home for troubled adolescents. Five years later, Cretton was back with a full-length movie of the same name that took a closer and much more nuanced look at the group home dynamic. It is a different group of characters and a whole new home, but the overall themes of struggle and acceptance are still very much a part of the proceedings. By taking a longer look, Cretton has made the characters much more acceptable than in his award-winning short film version. Even viewers who have never had a toe in the world that these people inhabit can see just a little bit of themselves in each of the characters.

Cretton not only directed the film, but also wrote the very affecting screenplay, which is quite a feat for someone so young and relatively inexperienced at filmmaking. Before directing this long version of "Short Term 12," the Hawaii native had only helmed three shorts and codirected one documentary, "Drakmar: A Vassal's Journey." This marks the first time he has taken the lead in a scripted feature-length film, but viewers will be hard-pressed to catch any mistakes that a first-time director might make. Instead, Cretton pulls off a monumental feat by giving the audience an emotional, well-acted, and layered movie that steers clear of melodrama in favor of realism that is touching and heartbreaking at the same time. It will be interesting to see what this obviously talented director will do next because he is likely to get a lot more exposure once "Short Term 12" is released to a wider audience.

Besides Cretton, the other breakout of the film is lead actress Larson, who played Kate in the canceled Showtime drama "United States of Tara." She delivers the best performance in a film full of outstanding acting, imbuing Grace with a strength that seems almost superhuman, and yet quietly graceful at the same time, particularly during her interactions with the children. It isn't easy to portray a woman who is gentle yet courageous, bold yet understated, but Larson manages to pull it off, which is essential considering that "Short Term 12" rests on her seemingly slight but actually Herculean shoulders.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5