My late friend Roger Ebert once said that movies are the most powerful aid to empathy of all the arts, and “Short Term 12”, one of the small gems of 2013, is a model example of that. As hanging around its young, damaged people, the movie goes deep into them as immersing us into their reality, and it is sometimes difficult to watch because of the emotion intensity generated from their hard situations. While it ultimately feels hopeful in the end, the movie never resorts to mawkish sentimentality as maintaining the emotional truthfulness to its human characters, and we come to find ourselves in deep sympathy with them while hoping for the best.
Its story mainly revolves around Grace(Brie Larson), a young supervisor of one of those foster care facilities which temporarily shelter troubled adolescent kids with nowhere to stay(the title of the movie refers to the name of the facility in the movie). As shown from the opening scene, every day at the facility brings troubles to be handled to her and her co-workers including her long-time boyfriend Mason(John Gallagher Jr.), and the movie observes how professionally Grace and Mason handle their charges. The kids in the facility, who are brought there for each own problem, can suddenly be aggressive or violent just for some trivial things, and it is Grace and Mason’s main job to take care of resulting troubles with considerable caution and tactfulness.
This is a difficult and exhausting work, but Grace and Mason are experienced workers who do really care about the kids in their facility. They may be jaded enough to laugh about their difficult work experiences in the past, but they are not cynical at all, and we also come to know about why Grace and Mason are so natural at approaching to their troubled teenagers. While Mason was once an angry, confused child under foster care, Grace was a victim of parental abuse, and that makes her particularly close to kids still feeling wounded by their memories of abuse in spite of the relatively safer environment provided by her and her co-workers.
When she sees Jayden(Kaitlyn Dever) on her first day at the facility, Grace instantly senses that this hostile teenager girl is struggling with some serious emotional problem, though she is told by her direct boss that Jayden is merely a minor case. She later comes to learn that Jayden has been an abuse victim just like she was, but, to her frustration, there is almost nothing she can do in her position for this troubled girl except providing a temporary shelter.
The circumstance becomes more intense and dramatic as Grace is thrown into a more stressful state due to her own personal problems including unexpected pregnancy, but the movie always holds itself even during its most volatile moments, and the director/writer Destin Cretton, who developed the movie from his previous short film with the same name, brings a considerable amount of realistic details to his film. Through its documentary-like ambience mainly established through its handheld camera approach, we get the vivid feeling of observing the daily life of its characters, and they come to us as real people coping with real problems while the camera closely captures several intense moments amid their jarring interactions.
One of such scenes is involved with a boy named Marcus(Keith Stanfield), who is soon going to be 18 and will have to leave the facility according to the law. He looks moody and sullen at first, but we gradually see a vulnerable damaged kid inside his hardened appearance, and I was at a loss during the scene in which he expresses the pains from his unhappy childhood memories through his plain but harrowing rap song. Mason’s following response may be too simple to you, but, seriously, what else can possibly you say to this unhappy boy, who already saw and experienced too much even when he was very young?
And then there is also a quiet but devastating scene when Jayden indirectly reveals to Grace what she has endured. On the surface, Jayden merely tells her fairy tale, but it is a sad, cruel story reflecting something far more awful, and we can only imagine how much this girl suffered from that while mired in that hopeless desperation observed from many young abuse victims like her.
Performances are crucial in the realistic depiction in the movie, and Cretton draws nice nuanced performance from his good cast. I recently started to notice Brie Larson through her notable supporting turns in “Don Jon”(2013) and “The Spectacular Now”(2013), and this talented actress is terrific here as a young woman as emotionally problematic as the kids she cares about. Grace and Mason love each other, but her emotional scars still prevent herself from being more opened to him, and Larson is especially good when Grace and Mason’s relationship reaches at the most frustrating point. Grace desperately wants to let out her complicated emotions being churned inside her right now, but she knows she can’t, and her agonizing emotional state is clearly conveyed to us thanks to Larson’s performance.
The other actors surrounding Larson also seamlessly put themselves into their respective characters. John Gallagher Jr., who has recently been known as one of the main cast members in TV series “The Newsroom”, is warm and likable as a good man who did learn a lot from a precious piece of goodness bestowed upon him, and he smoothly moves between humor and drama with his unaffected chemistry with Larson. Rami Malek is a new employee who feels pretty awkward during his first days as expected, and Frantz Turner is Grace’s pragmatic boss, and Stephanie Beatriz, who is currently stealing the show as one of the comic characters in TV sitcom series “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”, shows a surprisingly serious side through her small supporting role. Young supporting actors including Keith Stanfield and Kaitlyn Dever are also believable as the kids in the foster care facility, and the sense of small, fragile community is palpable among them when they are together in the room.
Although it was released at US theaters with lots of critical acclaims in late August of 2013, “Short Term 12” was quickly forgotten even before the end of the year, and that is really a shame considering how powerful this overlooked film is. This is a rare movie observing its young characters with remarkable honesty, and, though it is tough to watch at times for its raw emotions, the movie earns a small hope in the end through its hard emotional journey packed with genuine emotions to touch you in one way or another, and its finale does deserve a hug from us. If you cannot make others happy, then maybe you should try to make others less unhappy at least, shouldn’t you?