Monday, January 20, 2014

Review - Short Term 12

(This one's up kinda late... sorry!)

Look into my eyes, tell what it's like,
To live a life not knowing what a normal life's like.”

A sullen African-American teen, Marcus (Keith Stanfield), sits in a small bedroom rapping a cappella to an audience of his youth worker and his goldfish. When we look into his eyes, we can absolutely see that he never has, but has always longed to, know what a “normal” life's like. But for Marcus and the other underprivileged kids living at Short Term 12, the temporary foster care facility that gives this extraordinary little film its title, a normal life seems beyond their reach.
Written and directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, Short Term 12 centres around Grace (Brie Larson), a young woman who works at the home for at-risk youths with her boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher Jr.). As Grace explains to a rookie staffer, their job is not to play therapist or parent, but simply to “create a safe environment”.

That can sometimes be a stressful responsibility given the dangerous tendencies some of these troubled youngsters have developed. However, as we learn through the impeccably gradual exposition of Grace's backstory, no one understands them and what they're going through better than her.

Short Term 12 is one of those exceptional, unassuming dramas that requires no antagonists and no overt conflict for us to develop concern and attachment to its characters. Or at least, the conflicts that do propel the character arcs never turn the audience against a character. The film is populated entirely by decent, empathetic people principally at war with themselves, their pasts, and their futures, rather than with each other. The heated arguments and violent outbursts we witness merely open up windows through which we can see the true battles that rage inside against personal demons.

Cretton's near-perfect script never gives direct face to the evil that ubiquitously looms over the lives of these kids. It only ever reveals itself in the form of scars; emotional or physical, self-inflicted or by some oppressor. In essence, the abuse, neglect, and social indifference that has cursed these youths becomes an intangible and all more serious threat, but without pulling focus from what Short Term 12 is really about: healing the wounds.
And there's plenty of healing to do. Not just for the teens inhabiting Short Term 12, but also (especially) for Grace. Although she is a strong, independent woman and a crucially positive role model for the wards under her care, her independence is in fact what weakens her the most. Every day she neglects to follow her own advice about emotional transparency, allowing the ghosts of her own troubled childhood to continue to haunt her.

These unresolved feelings come to the fore when a new girl, Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), arrives at Short Term 12. Jayden is a simmering mess of father issues with a history of cutting herself, to whom Grace finds she can relate all too well. While this allows her to slowly gain Jayden's trust and confidence, it also triggers long suppressed emotions that shake the fragile stability of Grace's life.

Another modest triumph (but a triumph nonetheless) of Cretton's screenplay is its use of simple symbolism to peel back the layers of characters who are, by nature of how Cretton conceived them, too scared or confused to open up explicitly. A goldfish can be more than a goldfish, a toy doll can reveal a lifetime of anguish, and a drawing of an armless octopus can manifest a soul's worth of unspoken thought and feeling.
All this precise writing wouldn't be worth its own ink without strong actors to interpret it, and Short Term 12 is blessed with an abundance of them. Every role, big and small, is beautifully played by a simply terrific cast, built organically around Brie Larson's quiet revelation at its centre. The combination of their earnest performances and Cretton's storytelling finesse makes Short Term 12 a picture that's easy to invest oneself in, and it's an investment that pays incredible dividends.

**** out of ****

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