You would be hard-pressed to find a better film in this category than “Short Term 12.”
The 2013 indie from director Destin Daniel Cretton follows overlapping stories in a group home, a halfway house called Short Term 12. Its residents are a melange of juvenile offenders, mentally ill children and lost, poverty-stricken teenagers.
This isn’t a traditional mentor-mentee story, though. The staff members’ lives are as riddled with problems as the residents, many (such as Grace) sharing their own personal strife and the pain therein (such as her father’s imprisonment) with the teenagers as a means of connecting.
The film opens on the first day for new staff member Nate (Rami Malek), who is quickly embraced by the other staff members who tell him about a 16-year-old resident named Wesley who once ran away from the home.
The staff isn’t allowed to touch residents once they’re off-premises, so even though he’s suffering from gastric distress, Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) follows the wandering teen, trying to convince him to return. Let’s just say things end poorly for Mason, much to the delight of his co-workers. Wesley even returned to tell everyone of Mason’s embarrassing accident.
Later, after everyone laughs about the story for most of his first day, Nate asks what happened to Wesley. Grace (Brie Larson) replies, “He ran away again and two days later, someone found him dead in the bushes … That’s the real ending to the story.”
This pain hidden in joy; the suddenly whiplash of devastation — Cretton trades in these throughout the film’s 96 minutes. He’s not a stylish director, employing simple shots and, at times, the shaky cam method. But he’s an observant one, coaxing transcendence from the mundane.
It certainly doesn’t hurt that the film is chock-full of a red carpet’s worth of breakout performances. You’ll recognized wide-eyed Rami Malek (the star of USA’s tremendous “Mr. Robot”), who, as in his breakout show, offers more depth in his stillness than almost any actor working today.
The film also marked the film debut of Keith Stanfield, now of “Atlanta” fame. He plays Marcus, a haunted 18-year-old on the verge of aging out of the home. Like Malek, Stanfield trades in stillness — but his isn’t permanent. His stoicism gives way in two particularly scenes, as his anger and fear slips out during seemingly banal moments — never before has the explanation of why someone doesn’t want to have his hair cut elicited tears.
The breakout performance, though, belongs to Brie Larson. Her lived-in portrayal of Grace, who is terrified for Marcus to age out while dealing with her personal and romantic woes, is both uplifting and heartbreaking. Though only in her 20s, Grace seems to carry decades of pain and responsibility on her back as she bikes around town, seeking answers.
Among the issues the film tackles: Abortion, adoption, abuse, institutional racism, mental illness, fading relationships, living in poverty, prostitution and rape.
That’s a lot to pack into 96 minutes, but Cretton’s script allows the issues to coexist, much as they do in the real world. The characters attempt to learn how to deal with them by learning how to help each other, which allows the film to feel almost light at times. Camaraderie, after all, is often all we have.
As The Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday wrote in her review of the film:
Where some viewers might think of it as a social-problem film, it’s far better understood as a romance. “Short Term 12” is that rare movie gutsy enough to tell the truth about love: that it’s not a poetic longing or a magical-thinking happy ending, but a skill. And, the film suggests, we all have the capacity to learn it.
It’s a sentiment echoed by Alyssa Rosenberg, who wrote, “‘Short Term 12’ suggests that there’s something radical about optimism.”
They’re both right. Early in the film, Nate uses the term “underprivileged” to refer to the children, causing Marcus to lose his temper, screaming, “What the f‑‑‑ is that supposed to mean? I want to know what he means, ‘underprivileged.’ Think about your words before you speak.”
The film is about people learning to think about their words before they speak. To think about their actions before they take them. To learn how to truly love one another — as a verb, not a noun.
What could be more fitting after this week?