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D: Destin Daniel Cretton / 97m

Cast: Brie Larson, John Gallagher Jr, Kaitlyn Dever, Rami Malek, Lakeith Stanfield, Kevin Balmore (as Kevin Hernandez), Stephanie Beatriz, Frantz Turner, Alex Calloway

Some movies catch you by surprise, literally as you’re watching them. Sometimes it’s like a switch going on inside your head, a moment when everything suddenly falls into place, or is lit up like the night sky at a fireworks party. Everything about what you’re seeing and hearing now makes perfect sense, and everything continues in that same vein, rewarding you more and more and more. Short Term 12 is one of those movies, a small-scale, low budget feature expanded by its writer/director, Destin Daniel Cretton, from his 2009 short movie of the same name. It begins simply enough at a group home for troubled teenagers, with new member of staff, Nate (Malek), being regaled on his first day at work with a story that involves a runaway teen, a support worker, and an unfortunate bowel problem. It’s a funny story, well told by the support worker himself, Mason (Gallagher Jr), but interrupted by an attempt at escaping by one of the children.

As the day progresses we’re introduced to the home’s facilitator, Jack (Turner), who advises another of the support workers, Grace (Larson) that a new girl, Jayden (Dever), will be coming to stay for a while. Grace already has plenty of children to look after at the home, from nearly eighteen year old and ready to leave Marcus (Stanfield), to the would-be escapee, Sammy (Calloway). Away from the home she and Mason are in a relationship, but Grace has recently discovered that she’s pregnant, something she hasn’t told him or anyone else. As she deals with that issue, Jayden’s arrival and her background cause Grace to assess her own past, something that she hasn’t done for some time (she and Jayden share similarities in behaviour and the emotional trauma they’ve experienced). She and Jayden start to get to know each other, but it’s not all plain sailing.

Grace eventually tells Mason that she’s pregnant, and though he’s initially shocked, he’s pleased as well, and at a party to honour Mason’s foster parents he asks Grace to marry him. She accepts, but the next day her happiness is deflated by news relating to her father. The news upsets her, but not as much as the news that the previous night, Jayden was collected by her father and won’t be returning. She berates her boss and nearly loses her job over it. Things become even worse when one of the children tries to commit suicide. With everything piling on top of her, Grace becomes withdrawn and uncommunicative with Mason, and tells him she can’t marry him or have his child. But hope comes in an unexpected form, as Grace makes one last effort to help Jayden, and by extension, herself as well.

A movie about the staff and children at a group care home that could have turned out to be mawkish, unconvincing, and trite, instead is sincere, moving, and pleasantly unsentimental. Based on writer/director Cretton’s own experiences working at a group facility for teenagers for two years, Short Term 12 (the name of the home) is a marvel of concise, effective storytelling, restrained yet emotive direction, and features a clutch of heartfelt, honest performances. It’s a movie that avoids the cliché trap with ease, and never once talks down to its audience or undermines its characters by making their issues and problems stereotypical or sensational. From Sammy’s borderline autism to the abuse Jayden is subject to, each child is given a background and a history that informs their behaviour and neutralises any notion that their actions aren’t credible. Cretton found most of the children through open casting calls (Stansfield is the only returnee from the 2009 version), and it’s a tribute to the casting team of Kerry Barden, Rich Delia and Paul Schnee that they were able to find so many children with little or no acting experience who were able to portray these characters in such a realistic manner.

But ultimately, and with no disrespect to Gallagher Jr or Dever, who both put in exemplary work, this is Larson’s movie, pure and simple. She is simply magnificent in her first leading role, imbuing Grace with a caring, resilient nature that’s slowly eroded by the overwhelming feelings that she tries so hard to avoid or ignore, feelings that are brought to the fore by becoming pregnant and meeting Jayden. Larson offers a performance that is never less than truthful, and which is fearless in presenting the emotional devastation that Grace experiences, and the pain that keeps her from enjoying any happiness beyond helping the children at the home. And as Larson explores the depths of Grace’s increasingly dissociative behaviour, she also ensures that the lifeline offered to her by helping Jayden isn’t taken up for purely selfish reasons but because Grace genuinely needs and wants to help others like her. Just the various degrees of subtlety that Larson employs is impressive enough, but she also transforms herself physically, turning in on herself as things get worse for Grace and her survivor’s guilt begins to gnaw at her. She’s aided by Cretton’s decision to frame her in close up for much of the movie, so that we get to see in detail the effect everything is having on her.

Making only his second feature, Cretton shows an assurance and a confidence in the material that some directors who’ve been making movies for far longer never achieve. In conjunction with DoP Brett Pawlak, Cretton uses a hand-held camera to tremendous effect, following his characters around as they peer into rooms and travel down hallways and gather together at break times to shoot the breeze and reestablish some sense of normalcy (if that’s at all possible) in the face of days where they’re run ragged by the demands of both the chidren and the system they’re stuck with. Cretton is clever enough not to criticise the system and its failings directly, either in relation to the staff or the children, but he does throw in some well aimed barbs that hit home with stunning accuracy. Also, he takes the issue of parental abuse and makes sure that there is no attempt to understand or condone such abuse, or to put it into a context that might offer an excuse for it. There are broader issues here that could have been addressed, but Cretton leaves them be in order to concentrate on the terrible trials endured on a daily basis by a still traumatised young woman and a devalued teenager. And it’s the best decision he could have made by far.

Rating: 8/10 – a small miracle of a movie that stumbles only once or twice in its search for emotional and social verisimilitude, Short Term 12 is impressive in a restrained, deliberate way, but it’s also one of the most emotionally honest movies seen in recent years; with an incredible performance by Larson, and the kind of intuitive screenplay that only comes along once in a while, this is a dazzlingly simple yet powerful movie that lingers in the mind long after you’ve seen it. (26/31)