Short Term 12

January 11, 2014
Brie Larson in 'Short Term 12', 2013
Brie Larson in 'Short Term 12', 2013

I’ve been in two minds this week about a second review: whether to go with Jonathan Teplitzy’s The Railway Man and its maudlin “true story” of an aging train-spotter who compulsively relives the nightmare of imprisonment by the Japanese in World War Two; or Short Term 12, an American indie about a young woman who works at a home for disturbed children. If I’ve opted for the latter it’s partly because having just disposed of the sinister Nazis I didn’t have much desire to take on the fanatical Japanese. One begins to identify with Colin Firth, in The Railway Man, who spends the entire movie perfecting his stunned mullet impersonation.

Destin Cretton’s Short Term 12 is a much fresher proposition. It is a project that doesn’t address the vast metaphysical problem of Man’s Inhumanity to Man, but looks at the tensions and anxieties of a small group of teenagers and carers in a foster care facility in the San Francisco area.

There is an understated realism in both the performances, and the look of the film, which uses a hand-held camera to make us feel as if we are in the same rooms as the characters. It often seems as if one is watching a documentary or a reality TV show – a slice of life rather than a fullblown drama – but this deceptively casual frame contains a strong, engaging story.

The main protagonist is Grace (Brie Larson), who works hard at her job as a day supervisor, dealing with disturbed kids that have been separated from their families. Grace has built up a tremendous rapport with these teenagers, although she is challenged by newcomer, Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), who is highly intelligent but full of anger and misery.

Grace lives with Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), one of her co-workers, in a relationship that has become more serious than either will admit. When she falls pregnant it stirs up the demons from her own childhood, and compells her to act in a manner that is unstable and irrational. But there is little scope for personal instability when one is constantly dealing with kids who are capable of acts of violence or self-harm at the slightest provocation.

Behind her bright and sympathetic façade Grace is a mystery, to both her boyfriend and the viewer. As the story unfolds we begin to piece the puzzle together and to understand the basis of her close engagement with the children in her care. Mason has more forebearance than most men in his position, but he is, after all, a professional carer.

With Hollywood production values and a John Williams score Short Term 12 would be a steaming melodrama, but Cretton’s directorial touch is so light we might be watching the action on a concealed camera. There is a naturalness about this film that makes the most loaded subject matter seem perfectly plausible. When Jayden reads out a children’s story she has written about a lonely octopus it is a transfixing moment. One doesn’t need a course in psychoanaysis to understand the meaning of this homespun fable or to believe there are children capable of turning their traumas into allegories.

Jayden’s story ignites an instant response in Grace but she can’t get her boss to understand its true significance. Her feelings of frustration and helplessness are palpable, especially when combined with the personal issues that are eating away at her sense of wellbeing. Through procedural scruples, or the psychological barriers that one erects as protection against unhappy memories, she suffers that terrible feeling of possessing a key that can’t be fitted to a lock. For Grace to make that vital connection is the only way to achieve a semblance of what the rest of the world calls normality.

Short Term 12
USA, rated M
96 mins
Written & directed by Destin Cretton; starring Brie Larson, John Gallagher Jr., Kaitlyn Dever, Keith Stanfield, Stephanie Beatriz, Rami Malek

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 11th  January, 2014.