The summer may have started off being all about mainstream flicks like Man of Steel and World War Z but it’s set to conclude with smaller films in the spotlight. It’s appropriate, then, that the remarkable Short Term 12 arrives at the end of a season which has been more about films like Fruitvale Station, Blue Jasmine and The Spectacular Now than White House Down or The Lone Ranger.
Grace (the incredible Brie Larson) is devoted to her job as a supervisor at a facility for at-risk teens. Though she seems to have a handle on the kids and her long-term relationship with her co-worker Mason (a perfectly cast John Gallagher Jr.), we learn that’s not entirely the case.
When Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) – a new intake with a heartbreaking story – arrives, she forces Grace to relive her own horrific past. On the verge of an emotional breakdown that threatens her relationship, Grace must confront the unsettling memories she’s managed to repress. She and Mason also attempt to help Marcus (Keith Stanfield), who is about to turn 18, transition into life outside the facility he’s come to call home.
Written and directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, whose own work experience at a group home contributes to the film’s authenticity, Short Term 12 is unlike anything audiences have seen before. Every moment, from its arresting opening scene its to the brilliant, full-circle climax manages to be simultaneously beautiful and tragic.
The acting is subtle and natural; the camera alternately peer in close, and then backs off to give the characters space. While naturalistic, there is still an atmospheric bent to Brett Pawlak’s cinematography. In certain scenes, notably when Grace and Mason dance at Mason’s parents’ anniversary, the aesthetic beauty of the composition and lighting adds to the emotional impact of the scene. This contrasts with the scenes of uncomfortable suspense, and others that evoke emotional devastation.
The teens who stay in the facility each have their own arcs, giving even the characters with minimal screen time a depth and agency often denied to supporting roles. The teens are not shown in session with their counselors, as if to both maintain their confidentiality and make the point that it isn’t just the work in the room that is important for these teens, but the work they have to do every moment of each day that adds to their progress.
Short Term 12 isn’t one of those films that stays with you for days. It’s one of those films that stays with you, period, making the fact that it’s opening only in limited theaters this weekend a travesty.
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