I am sometimes torn between two opposing personal quirks. On the one hand, I hate “important” movies. If you’re starting out with the premise that I need to know something only you can inform me, you’ve already lost me (and if you think about it, the good ones like Schindler’s List or Hotel Rwanda find a way around that anyway). On the other hand, I love movies that deal with difficult subjects in a healthy, human way, especially if the movie is about grief. I think the difference is the latter category is about respecting characters and challenging audiences, while the former is exploiting something “important” for its own benefit, usually in the form of awards.
To mention that Destin Cretton's Short Term 12 is about the foster care system could scare people off as much as a movie about grief, The Holocaust, political genocide, or any social issue. This is tough stuff, we all know that. So let me tell you Short Term 12 is a powerful, moving drama. We all want movies to make us feel things. We just need to know we can trust them with our feelings, and Short Term 12 earns our trust and then delivers the emotion.
Grace (Brie Larson) works at a foster home and she seems to be in charge. She’s not the boss, but as a senior attendant on the floor with the kids, she’s the most experienced in handling individual situations and relating to the teens waiting to be placed. She’s dating Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), and we learn a lot of the rules and protocols of the facility while they train a new employee, Nate (Rami Malek). The protocols are really the essence of drama. They’re trying to manage volatile emotions and, often, there is no good solution. No formula of steps nor any talking exercise is going to fulfill the abandonment felt by a parent-less child, and no procedure is really going to manage the emotional turmoil felt by a victim of abuse. Grace takes a particular interest in a new girl, Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) who appears tough, but also intensely vulnerable.
Grace is so warm to difficult personalities that I easily watched her for 90 minutes. Actually, she’s the kind of person I want to marry. She's ferocious when she defends the kids. The film also layers in the various adults’ relationship with the foster system; Grace and Mason are more than just employees who happen to like working with kids. But the film is never in your face about their righteous passion.
Short Term 12 is sympathetic to the young characters. It allows them to express episodes of full rage, and forgives them for acting out. Some of them have medicated conditions, some have been abused and this is what happens when you’re dealing with such things. There are no judgments. Short Term 12 also illustrates the flawed system from both sides. In the case of Jayden, what should be an emotionally clear case doesn’t fit the formula that allows Child Services to intervene. That’s frustrating, but the system has to be in place to protect good parents from frivolous abuse accusations. It fails on both sides. That is drama. We need human beings to weather those systems and make good judgments in individual situations.
We enter the world of Short Term 12 with humor, a smart way to lead in with a light touch. As is true in any difficult situation, there is plenty of humor to be found amid the hardship. The fosters are a funny bunch as it is. The film then eases into the real stuff, and then again back into light territory. It’s generally light, but always honest. I really do love these characters and I’m absorbed in their drama.
This is just one movie where I really regret the filmmakers' choice of using handheld camera techniques. I know it offers an ease of shooting. I hope it wasn’t chosen to parallel the emotional levels of the drama because that’s really lame. In any event, I really wanted them to stop shaking the damn camera, especially when certain kids are struggling. You basically have to write off the whole cinematography element when someone choose to employ handheld photography. Luckily, it's the script and the performances that carry the film.
The performances are outstanding and should be remembered when the time comes to remember who did great things this year. Larson is layered and phenomenal. Dever is a powerhouse. Gallagher has a supporting role that requires him to be literally supportive, which is a beautiful thing. Everyone filling in the tapestry of the film is memorable. This is a film I will remember for a long time.