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Short Term 12 | reviews, news & interviews

Short Term 12

Short Term 12

American indie gem follows the paths of troubled individuals with great sensitivity

Marcus (Keith Stanfield) with Grace (Brie Larson): 'She has past issues of her own which she’s suppressing'

A film of contrasts, Short Term 12 manages to be simultaneously dark and humorous, casual yet intense. The relationships between staff and patients in the group home for troubled teenagers where it’s set – the facility is meant to be a place of refuge for up to a year, hence the title, though many stay longer – are both thick and thin, and as in the wedding vow must endure through difficult times.

They’re thick because the bonds created when exploring the reservoirs of sadness that these kids bring along with them run so deep; thin, because the slightest alteration in mood risks disrupting these hard-won connections.

Destin Daniel Cretton’s film opens on a casual note, as the outfit's 20-something staffers assemble for another working day. Mason (John Gallagher Jr) is telling a self-deprecating funny story to newcomer Nate (Rami Malek); supervisor Grace (Brie Larson) arrives on her bike. It’s a bright, tranquil day, when suddenly a teenage boy runs out the door, yelling wildly as he tries to escape (pictured below right). They give chase, wresting him to the ground until his manic energy subsides. Then Mason resumes his story.

Maintaining the balance inside is no less challenging, achieved through a combination of group meetings and one-on-ones, sometimes in the “cool-down” room. It’s a learning process for both sides, as Nate discovers when he precipitates a conflict by a misguided comment about his wish to work with “underprivileged kids”. The effort is to catch problems before they come up: with Marcus, his forthcoming 18th birthday means that he’ll have to leave soon. Facing an adult world he's apprehensive about, Marcus raps to Mason about the abuses he’s suffered, and his feelings about “not knowing what a normal life is like”, then asks for Grace to shave his head as part of this moving-on ritual. It’s a scene that leaves him (and likely viewers) in tears.

It’s often heart-aching, and Cretton handles his material with true sensitivity

Meanwhile Grace is most absorbed with new arrival Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever). The small steps of trust that Grace gradually achieves with Jayden are masterfully portrayed by both actors, as they open up to each other about their scars, sometimes literal: they’ve both been self-harmers (as Grace says, “it’s impossible to worry about anything else when there’s blood coming out of you”). For all her apparent strength, Grace has past issues of her own which she’s suppressing, and they’ll come to the fore in the film's searing denouement, precipitated by this bond with Jayden.

There’s a further hint of those demons when we see Grace and Mason at home together (they're keeping their relationship secret from the workplace, or at least think they are). When Grace learns she’s pregnant, her immediate – in fact only – thought is abortion; that’s despite her evident closeness to Mason, who seems patient and supportive (the couple, pictured below left). Later Mason takes her to an anniversary celebration for the Mexican couple who'd been his foster parents (clearly they'd played the same role for many others). In a world where the idea of parenthood is so often fraught and associated with pain, that get-together becomes a beacon of hope for Grace to ponder.

It’s an often heart-aching story, and Cretton handles his material with real sensitivity. Short Term 12 represents the best of American independent filmmaking, technically too, though handheld camera is arguably a bit overused; Joel P West’s score is strong and spare, never more so than in opening and closing moments. Films like this often come out of Sundance, where Cretton indeed won a jury prize in 2009 for his similarly titled 20-minute film (which featured only Stanfield from the present cast). This success pushed him to expand it to a full-length 96 minutes. Bizarrely, Sundance turned Short Term 12 down this year: instead it went to SXSW in Texas, where it came away with both jury and audience main awards. Regardless of where this small-scale gem first earned acclaim, Short Term 12 will travel widely, and deserves to speak movingly to audiences everywhere.

Short Term 12 is released on Friday 1 November

Overleaf: watch the official trailer for Short Term 12


The small steps of trust that Grace gradually achieves with Jayden are masterfully portrayed


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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