Let’s just start off with this: Short Term 12 is the best film I saw at the SXSW Film Festival this year. I always find it intriguing to find a little indie feature that was never on your radar that can utterly blow you away with its story, characters, and range of emotions it evokes. It happens every year, but I can never pick out beforehand which film it will be.
Director/writer Destin Cretton is a soft-spoken man, but this guy created something that very few people could with only their second feature film.
The film tells the story of a facility that holds foster kids that have a few issues, usually because of emotion or mental issues. The place only holds them for short terms, up to twelve months, but sometimes more. With therapists on hand, the staff that monitor the kids are the ones in the trenches, seeing how these kids deal with daily life, life that has been screwed up for them somehow. Grace (Brie Larson), Mason (John Gallagher, Jr.), Jessica (Stephanie Beatriz), and newcomer Nate (Rami Malek) are the staff that hold down the fort, so to speak. Each kid has his or her own story and so do Grace and Mason.
It may take the audience some time to figure out what kind of facility this place actually is. We are introduced right away to the rule that if a kid gets beyond the borders of the facility you can’t touch them. Sammy (Alex Calloway) is the escapee who demonstrates this, and all four people who try to grab and tackle him is quite a sight. There are those kids who call this place a home and others who call it misery. Little by little, we get to know some of them. Sammy’s story is one of them.
The driving force in this film is Brie Larson’s portrayal of Grace. She is absolutely phenomenal. I have only ever seen Larson in The United States of Tara and a couple other parts, and this is a completely different role. If I had any doubts on the acting prowess of Brie Larson before seeing Short Term 12, they are now completely gone. Larson’s Grace starts out very guarded even with her boyfriend Mason. Something major happens in their relationship that causes Grace to pause and reevaluate what Mason means to her. Another changing force for her is Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) who comes into the facility as a favor. She is troubled, rebellious, a cutter, and her relationship with her dad is complicated. Grace recognizes herself in Jayden, taking her case personally and beyond her limits at the facility.
John Gallagher, Jr. plays the loving, dopey boyfriend, Mason. Initially, he comes off as a loser, but slowly you get the impression that this guy will do anything for the kids and Grace. Grace doesn’t see it. It is probably just a relationship of convenience, but what he is truly made of comes out by the end of the film. Gallagher brought a sensitivity and kindness to the character. He comes off as kind of a doofus, but by the end probably every girl in the audience would take him for a boyfriend.
I could not write a review for this film and not mention Keith Stanfield who plays a resident kid named Marcus. He is about to age out of the facility, and clearly has had a troubled past. Although he is older, taller, and somewhat more intimidating than the other kids at the facility, he is more reserved and quiet than the others. His request before leaving the facility is that he be allowed to shave his head. This moment in the film is very emotional and revealing of what Marcus has been through. For his first role, Keith Stanfield shows remarkable talent that is necessary to portray a character that is damaged. The role is quiet with not a lot of lines, but he pulls it off with his demeanor and body language.
Short Term 12 is not a film to be overlooked or pushed to the side. Too often independent films end up only being seen in a few theatres in select markets. This is a film that is too great to go the way of VOD and iTunes. It has the potential to captivate an audience like myself who will fall in love with it because of the story, the actors, and the pure, raw emotions it will evoke. I have no shame in saying I was crying at the end. Destin Cretton has created that perfect film, the one you cannot wait to see again.
I give Short Term 12 5 “pet fish” out of 5.
by Sarah Ksiazek