If Brie Larson doesn’t find herself among the contenders for the Best Actress Oscar this year, then the Academy needs to take a long hard look at itself. In Short Term 12, Larson delivers a powerhouse performance that draws you in and keeps you mesmerised for the duration of what is, at times, a harrowing story set in a foster care facility. Perhaps best known as Kate on television series The United State of Tara, Larson is a knockout as the compassionate yet damaged leader of the dedicated group of staff who run the centre. Littered with moments of breathtaking honesty in its frank depiction of the extreme experiences that the various inhabitants endure, both inside and outside the facility, this is a film that will tip many into emotional overload. Written and directed by Destin Cretton and based on his own short film of the same name, Short Term 12 is an emotional rollercoaster with moments of mirth amidst the heartache.
Larson plays Grace, one of a handful of staff at a foster facility that, as the title suggests, is supposed to be a short term placement for children and teenagers for up to 12 months or until they turn 18. However, there are no guarantees and at least one of the children has been there almost three years. Grace and the other staff are not supposed to be counsellors or therapists, they are charged with monitoring the day-to-day activities and ensuring the children (for want of a better word given that some are in their late teens) are safe. The problem is, of course, that the amount of time they spend with the residents ensures that bonds are formed and they become privy to revelations about what these young people have experienced. The students might articulate their experiences in different ways – whether it is Marcus’ rap about his drug dealing mother or Jayden’s short story that serves as an allegory for her relationship with her father – but Brie and her co-workers often find themselves having to deal with the ongoing emotional, psychological and, at times, physical damage that has been inflicted on these young people.
Grace is in a relationship with co-worker Mason (John Gallagher Jr) and we soon discover that both of them have much in common with the kids they are protecting. Despite dealing with several crises of their own which threaten to splinter the relationship, their commitment to their work never waivers. Battling her own demons while trying to protect those entrusted to her care, Grace begins to unravel and ultimately takes matters into her own hands when one of the children is released into the custody of an abusive parent simply because they can’t bring themselves to talk about what they have endured. Larson articulates Grace and everything she is feeling – anger, sadness, frustration, compassion – with a rawness that is mesmerising and completely devoid of artifice.
What I really like about this film is the way in which it raises questions about exactly who is best to understand children and young people in crisis. Is it the so-called experts possessing abundant ‘qualifications’ or is it those who have experienced firsthand the hardships endured by those who find themselves in a facility such as this? The film definitely takes aim at the idea of bureaucracy dictating the decision-making process and the implications this can have when decisions are made ‘by the book’ with little effort to understand the reality of the situation and the risks associated with such a rigid approach.
Gallagher is also excellent as Mason, a man who seems almost too good to be true in his unyielding commitment to his job and a woman who struggles to accept that she is worthy of his love. Of the others, Keith Stanfield and Kaitlyn Deaver are incredible as Marcus and Jayden respectively, their performances utterly believable as two people broken by those closest to them. In fact, everything about Short Term 12 is excellent and Cretton has constructed a film that, whilst difficult to watch at times, is an utterly worthwhile experience. Come awards season, it will take one hell of a performance to deny Larson, while Cretton’s screenplay should also be a contender. Of course, it is possible that my own experiences as a young person that enable me to empathise with characters to some extent may have clouded my judgement, but I would like to think that, when I declare this as one of the very best films I have seen for a long time, I am coming at it objectively. Check it out and make up our own mind.