Debut director Destin Daniel Cretton shows a level of assurance far beyond his years with Short Term 12 (2013), circumnavigating the tantalisingly obvious to create a work that is both warm and heartrending, all while jumping through some well-worn hoops. The film takes events right to the edge of cliché, but the director makes it work with his evident realisation that unadorned realism is not enough in a picture that is always at risk of earnestness. Cretton elevates the material by ascribing overarching narratives of cyclical lives and poetic justice onto the story; the higher the film aims, the more convincing it becomes.
Short Term 12 stars Brie Larson as Grace, a twenty-something manager at a foster home for at-risk teenagers. Though happy with her boyfriend and co-worker Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) and evidently brilliant at her job, there is a sense that she’s drifting through life. When troubled Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) arrives at the centre, Grace sees a reflection of herself a decade earlier and latches onto the girl, bringing her face-to-face with long-suppressed demons. Life in the centre beats on, with a strong supporting cast creating a convincing portrait of a community of isolated individuals engaged in a collective struggle. Larson is terrific and with luck, Short Term 12 will do for her what Winter’s Bone (2010) did for Jennifer Lawrence.
Larson skilfully pitches Grace at the cusp of self-sufficiency and vulnerability. A lot of the drama happens in the spaces between her blustery professionalism and tacit evasiveness; there’s a sense of someone who has managed to mute the horrors of the past just enough to move on with her life. Short Term 12 is about two generations of lost children, and the film is at its most moving when it shows that the older generation’s determination to save the younger is not simplistic philanthropy; it’s a compulsion propagated by years of psychological trauma. The scars of the past inform the present, and the film brilliantly demonstrates the fickle disconnect between helping and healing.
Some will inevitably find the picture’s lyrical brand of redemption to be a touch heavy-handed, but there’s both rage and empathy at its core. For the older characters like Grace and Mason, childhood is an ideal to fight for; a way to clear the ledger of guilt and resentment. Short Term 12 is full of symbolic, weary graduations into adulthood and, for most of the characters, the transition is about reconciling the troubles of youth with the uncertain potential of independence. It’s an intuitive, heartfelt picture in which the intelligent nuances hide behind the broader strokes.
The 57th BFI London Film Festival takes place from 9-20 October, 2013. For more of our LFF 2013 coverage, simply follow this link.