Warm, compact, empathetic, perfectly played, and achingly real, Short Term 12 is one of the truest portrayals of troubled teens I’ve ever seen. It is a tautly constructed blend of tear-stained naturalism, social insight, righteous moral fury, and composed drama, a soothing balm on the wounds of those bored with the tepid conventionalism of summer fare.
Refusing the lure of cheap sentiment, Short Term 12 is never manipulative. It earns its emotional impact through deft storytelling and a wealth of compelling details about the real obstacles faced by neglected youths. Yet in the face of trauma and despair, it strikes a fine balance between turbulence and subtlety.
Brie Larson (The Spectacular Now) is an incandescent, understated revelation – proving her abundant talent – as the formidable Grace, supervisor and caretaker of the wards in a foster-care facility for at-risk adolescents. She creates a marvelously complex heroine, selfless and frustrated, yearning to show love to all who feel unloved and unlovable. Quiet and firm, she shines so brightly that any director who watches this film will call up their casting agent immediately. It is a barnstorming portfolio piece for a rising star that seemingly came out of nowhere. Larson is indelibly planted on the map, and she will never be uprooted.
The film’s underlying concept is fundamentally appealing: that watching decent human beings strive to be their best selves is worthwhile. Remarkably, writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton avoids the potential landmines awaiting most people venturing into this territory. Building on his 2008 short of the same name, Cretton’s screenplay is wrought with passion and dedication.
The narrative is clearly paramount, and for good reason: it’s carefully told, moving, hopeful, overwhelming in its ambition, resonance, and raw intricacy. The dialogue is charming, faithful, yet ringing with truth. Relying on authentic performances from an excellent cast beyond Larson, particularly John Gallagher, Jr. (Margaret) and 16-year-old Kaitlyn Dever, the film is absorbing, emphatic, and touchingly memorable.
In demonstrating the tenderness and richness that is possible in young lives discarded by ordinary society, in bringing us fully into their perspectives, Cretton induces us to question our privilege and bolster our sympathy for the forgotten. It is a noble, redemptive, and inspiring aim. Short Term 12 is a triumph of modesty: a tiny sleeper hit that deserves a large audience; a beautiful story that leaves you breathless and beaming at life’s possibilities; in short, an indie movie miracle.