We all long for escape; from the past we wish we could forget, from the people who hurt us, from the walls we’re trapped within. For many of those in foster care, that sort of freedom from pain is near impossible, but it doesn’t mean that there aren’t people that can help make every day a little easier. And that’s exactly what writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton highlights in his film Short Term 12, a work that follows a young woman who works in a foster care facility.
As so many have mentioned, Brie Larson’s performance as Grace is top-notch. Cretton keeps the film’s scope on her at all times and it’s a smart move considering how well she performs. It’s great, simply because she has the ability to change her expressions to suit any single situation she’s faced with. And yet, there’s where one of my issues with the script lies. She’s almost too much of a chameleon. Her keeping emotions hidden is undoubtedly realistic, but the way she adapts to suit the every need of every single child and always has a story to relate with pushes the limits of belief.
Her relationship with Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), one of the at-risk teens who lives at the facility, is especially compelling and one of the major driving forces of the film — even if one or two scenes between them feel a little out of character. And yet I wish there had been more time dedicated to exploring the other young adults and counselors present. We barely get glimpses of them, and that’d be alright if glimpses were what we got of everyone, but you long to see more of these kids. Marcus (Keith Stanfield) in particular was one I wanted to know everything about, and thankfully he was treated to a little more exposure than some others.
I know this is Grace’s story at heart, but it’s a disservice to the audience to focus on one character when there are so many equally compelling narratives to pursue. Even someone like her fellow staffer Jessica, played by Beatriz who I’m very fond of on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, would have been interesting to learn more about. This is where Cretton’s limited scope somewhat fails. In focusing on Grace, he also brings in a surprisingly large amount of her boyfriend Mason, a character that John Gallagher Jr and Cretton try to make sympathetic, but failed at doing so. Most uncomfortable is the way he treats Grace when she is having an emotional breakdown, choosing to walk away rather than trying as hard as she tries for herself, for him, and for the kids.
Regardless, there’s pleasure enough to find here with Grace, Jayden, and Marcus; three compelling characters who (while one could have done with more screen time) were compelling and managed to bring forth many personal issues that deserved acknowledgment. In fact, the way the film approaches sensitive topics is one of its best features, never feeling exploitative at all and simply addressing things like depression, suicide, and sexual abuse with the deserved tact and grace that they are usually not given in modern works.
Destin Cretton brings the film full circle with the counselors telling stories – which feel a little too rehearsed frankly – about their days at the foster-care facility. It’s a surprisingly optimistic note for a film so focused on bleak issues, and it’s something to be appreciated. Even with its flaws, Short Term 12 remains an emotional and special little film. There’s heart here, and a genuine longing to highlight the way that those who have been abused and abandoned, as well as those who care for them, try to get through the day.
Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton; written by Destin Daniel Cretton; starring Brie Larson, John Gallagher Jr., Keith Stanfield, Kaitlyn Dever, Stephanie Beatriz & Rami Malek; 96 minutes.