Troubled 18-year-old Marcus, soon to leave the care of his foster family, sits on his bed, joined by a staff member at the Short Term 12 foster facility named Mason. Mason beats a lone bongo — a stripped down “tap, tap, tap-tap” — while Marcus raps over the top. Marcus’s lyrics are raw, the emotions tormenting his heart displayed not only on his face but in the tone of his voice. Life hasn’t gone well for him, and he’s not prepared to move onto life outside of foster care. That single sequence in Short Term 12, more than any other, gives you a taste of the sheer authenticity brought to this fabulous independent drama.
In life, most of us are given unlimited advice and inspiration from our parents, mentors, and other loved ones. “Be all you can be,” my father used to tell me. “Follow your heart wherever it takes you,” said my mother. “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” reads a magnet I received from my former high school principal, the quote itself attributed to Gandhi. But what of those who don’t have such caring parents and mentors in their lives? Or worse, what of those whose parents abuse the trust we as children instill in them? And finally, what of those who simply have no one in their life to look up to, no parents, no brothers or sisters, no mentors, no one?
Short Term 12 is a film, premiered at SXSW and now in theaters across the country, that explores the lives of those kids, “underprivileged kids,” as one character in the film, a staff member at the titular Short Term 12 facility, refers to them, audibly offending one child and likely making several others consider what is meant by that term.
There is a stigma around those whom we as a society deem to be at-risk: problem children, young addicts, social outcasts. Misunderstood is such an overused term, but it describes these kids well. The children of Short Term 12 certainly run the gamut of issues, but what writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton’s film does is explore who these children really are, and who they have looking out for them.
Short Term 12 centers around Grace (Brie Larson), a twenty-something caregiver dedicated to her role in the lives of these children but struggling through her own personal issues. Grace is not-so-secretly dating Mason (John Gallagher, Jr.), another staff member at Short Term 12 and a foster child himself. Aided by newcomer Nate (Rami Malek) and staff mainstay Jessica (Stephanie Beatriz), Grace and Mason serve as the primary authority figures in the kids’ lives, but understand that they are not parents, nor are they friends. They walk a tremendous tightrope and serve far greater roles than most of us could ever understand.
Grace, like each of the kids she cares for, is complex. She has been through serious hardships, as we learn throughout the film, and struggles in dealing with them soundly. We find that not only are the children of Short Term 12 broken, forced to live a life they weren’t prepared for, but so too are we all. No one is perfect.
While the film does contain a primary storyline, in a sense, it is more concerned with examining the various situations of foster life, filled with moments both heart-warming and heart-wrenching, time passed by group activities, alone time, and some of the more mundane jobs performed by staff: room checks, one-on-one checkups, community meetings.
Brie Larson plays Grace perfectly, showing the complexities of her thoughts and actions and displaying the severe internal demons that her character battles during the course of the film. And John Gallagher, Jr. is stunning as Mason, Grace’s rock. He bookends the entire film with two well-told stories that, while funny, convey both the tremendous hope and the tremendous concern that everyone at Short Term 12 sees in the kids. Gallagher also makes his way through a sweetly tearful speech during his foster parents’ anniversary party. And the moment described above that he shares with Marcus (Keith Stanfield) is one of the greatest the film has to offer.
Where many films layer on drama to try to create an abundant wave of feeling, Cretton plays Short Term 12 far more subtle, resulting not in a wave that crashes but rather a natural groundswell of genuine human emotion, ranging from happiness to sadness to absolute anger. A shot straight to the core of each of us, Short Term 12 will take your heart on a ride from floor to ceiling and wall to wall; it’s one of the most authentic films you are likely to see all year.
Short Term 12
Grade: ★★★★½ out of ★★★★★
MPAA Rating: R for language and brief sexuality
Runtime: 96 minutes