October 8, 2013

Short Term 12, Long Term Impact

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By LUCY GOSS

Winner of the 2013 Grand Jury Narrative Feature award at the SXSW film festival, Short Term 12 is a commanding look into a group home of troubled teens and their equally damaged 20-something caretakers. Directed by Destin Cretton and starring Brie Larson (21 Jump Street) and John Gallagher Jr. (The Newsroom), this indie film tells the simultaneously heart wrenching and gratifying story about the lives of foster kids, most prominently Marcus (Keith Stanfield) and Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), as well as their strict but  caring leader, Grace (Larson) and her partner and boyfriend Mason (Gallagher). It is unsurprising that this extremely intimate film is based on Cretton’s own experiences working in foster care.

Cretton’s style is hyperrealist. He uses hand-held cinematography and extreme close-ups on faces during conversation that force the audience to develop intimate relationships with the characters. This direction combined with the emotional strength and rugged appearance of the people in this story make it hard to believe that there are even actors involved. Larson, makeup-less and perfectly average looking, captures Grace’s passion and distress with impressive aptitude. It’s hard to believe the actress is only twenty-three. Grace helps her often-distraught kids by relating to them with her own stories of a broken home, but remains distant from everyone outside of work, including her boyfriend Mason, as they wrestle with the question of starting their own family.

The young, unknown actors in this film, particularly Stanfield, are brilliant in their total vulnerability and unjadedness, and manage to tell their stories of abuse and trauma, not through explanation, but through expression. My favorite scene is when Marcus, goaded by Mason’s attempt at connection, raps his own lyrics about his past while Mason plays a drum. Suddenly, we understand exactly why Marcus is the way he is. He raps skillfully about an addictive and abusive mother and life on the street.

The heaviness of the film is broken up nicely by the inevitable humor found when dealing with children and by the sweet love that exists between Grace and Mason. The arrival of Nate, a new caretaker,  proves a good entrance point for the audience, who faces similar adjustment issues, and highlights the humor of the film. Nate’s appearance helps us to realize that this job takes a unique kind of toughness and demeanor, thus highlighting Grace’s specialness as a caretaker.

I only had one problem with Short Term 12 — how we learn about Grace’s troubling past. We know through carefully dropped details and cryptic conversations what happened to Grace as a child. It does not need to be spelled out for us. Her experiences are as subtly portrayed as Marcus and Jayden’s. However, even after we already understand Grace’s life, she reveals explicit details that border on cliché and don’t aid the involvement of the audience or the emotional profundity of the story. Nevertheless, Larson’s character maintains her complexity, even through this single unnecessary scene.

This film might be the best independent drama of the year. The cinematography, acting, music and dialogue are all graced with a unique professionalism, but somehow maintain a realism and closeness that is not accessible in most Hollywood films. Cretton has built characters and situations that engage interest and, more importantly, the heart.

The beauty of Short Term 12,  which makes you tear up ultimately with hope rather than despair, is that even with all the evil of the characters’ past experiences, this is a film about human decency. Cretton sums it up best when he says, “The interesting thing about all these characters is that they are good people trying to be good people.” Fittingly, the film comes full circle at the end with a bonding moment between the employees of Short Term 12 as they take a break outside the building. It is in this scene, however, that we delightfully learn — almost as an afterthought — that one of our favorite characters has moved on to a better life.  For us, this means hope in a desperate world. For Grace, Mason and Nate, this is just another day at the office.

Lucy Goss is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at lgoss@cornellsun.com.