Although it mines territory of a typical Afterschool Special, Short Term 12 is much better than that, viewing its subjects with a kind of tough love. It is also exceptionally well acted, particularly by its lead, Brie Larson.
Written and directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, the film takes place in a group home for troubled teens. Larson is the head of the line staff, which means she’s not a therapist, but makes sure the kids are watched over with great care. Her second-in-command is also her live-in boyfriend, played shaggily by John Gallagher, Jr.
As the film begins, the exposition is laid out by having a new guy (Rami Malek) on his first day. Gallagher tells a story about chasing after an escaped kid while also having a bout of incontinence. We are introduced to a handful of the kids, each of whom has a different problem. Most notably is Marcus (Keith Stanfield), who is about to turn 18 and will thus have to leave.
Shortly thereafter Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) arrives. She is prone to cutting herself, so has to leave her door open at all times. She is sullen and not interested in making friends. Larson, who sees herself in the girl, tries to reach out to her.
As the film progresses, and we see how Larson’s job is both rewarding and demanding, it is revealed how her past butts against her future. She finds out that she is pregnant, which is not welcome news. We learn that she experienced a childhood not unlike those in her care. Gallagher is frustrated because she won’t let him in, not taking the advice she gives to her charges every day–talk it out.
This is very good film, with very few missteps. At a certain point Larson suspects that Dever is being abused by her father, and makes a move that seems out of character, but then it makes sense in a cathartic conclusion. All of the major plot threads, involving Marcus, Jayden and Larson/Gallagher, are handled intelligently and, given the circumstances, with very little sentimentality. Marcus is a rapper, and the rap he writes and performs (written by the actor himself) is actually pretty good.
Larson is a revelation. I’ve only seen her in a few things, such as 21 Jump Street and, just the other day in The Spectacular Now. Her character has incredible depth, and it’s not just from the writing. The pain she goes through is written all over her face.
I have no idea what the future distribution for this film will be, but I hope it goes wide and gets some recognition.
My grade for Short Term 12: A-.