There are some films that use lots of establishing shots, dialogue and other tricks to prepare an audience for what they are about to witness. All you need to know about the world of Short Term 12, a film about staff members and residents of a foster care facility, is settled in the first three minutes as Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) recounts a funny story of his time working there.
The story contains just the right amount of humor, drama and poignancy, setting the tone for what will come during the next 90 minutes. The film mainly follows Mason’s girlfriend, Grace (Brie Larson), whose empathy for the plight of the kids in her care is laudable, but it's also a mask for her own personal issues.
Brie Larson is the heart and soul of the movie, and every ounce of joy, despair and anger her character has is etched on her face.
Grace and Mason try to help kids like Marcus (Keith Stanfield), who’s only a week away from turning 18 and leaving the facility, and Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), who splits time between the facility and her possibly abusive father. They must also deal with the stresses of a job where heartbreak is often the norm, and sometimes kids are too far gone to be reached.
Writer/director Destin Cretton pulls you in right from the start, dropping little details about the individual’s lives that make them seem more fully fleshed out than they actually are. Each beat, even if you’ve never experienced what these kids have to go through, feels true to life, with barely a twitch of manufactured movie drama.
Larson is the heart and soul of the movie, and every ounce of joy, despair and anger her character has is etched on her face. At first she seems too young to play such a pivotal role. But as the film goes along, she grabs ahold of every moment like Grace’s life is her own, making her irresistible. It’d be a shame if she doesn’t garner some awards attention.
Gallagher is nearly her equal, making a character that could’ve been purely comic relief into someone deserving of tears, cheers and laughter. Several of the actors playing residents deserve notice, but Stanfield stands out the most. The angry young black man can be a stereotype, but he delivers the nuance the character deserves.
If the film becomes a bit too feel-good toward the end, Cretton can be forgiven, as everything prior to that makes the characters more than deserving of some happiness. Short Term 12 is one of the better films so far in 2013 — and great start to the fall movie season.