A drama about devoted young people working with volatile teenagers at a live-in foster care facility sounds like a slog to sit through. But there’s a reason “Short Term 12” won both the grand jury and audience awards at this year’s SXSW Film Festival. It’s earnest and sensitive in ways you’d expect, yes, but it’s also delivered with a confidence — in direction, script and acting — that elevates it.
The film’s driving force is actress Brie Larson, playing a fascinatingly complicated young woman named Grace. Barely more than a kid herself, yet also wise and womanly in ways that distinguish her from her charges, she’s a stern den mother or best pal, as the circumstance requires.
The movie opens on the first day for Nate (wide-eyed Rami Malek), who’s as eager as he is nervous. Grace lays down the rules as she walks him inside: “Remember, you are not their parent, you are not their therapist, you are here to provide a safe environment.” The rest of “Short Term 12” demonstrates how extremely hard it is, even for veterans such as Grace, to keep from stepping over those lines. Or from saying exactly the wrong thing.
Nate, for instance, explains to the kids during their daily group meeting that he’s taking a year off from college because he wants to work with “underprivileged kids.” That wording doesn’t exactly endear him to Marcus (Keith Stanfield), a lanky teen whose usual short fuse is even shorter as his 18th birthday approaches, signaling his departure from the group home into a world he’s not ready to handle. When he isn’t writing down rap lyrics, he focuses attention on a pet goldfish, whose bowl mirrors both the safety of the house and its lack of privacy.
Grace has her own private life, of course, but she literally takes work home with her. She lives with shaggy, amiable colleague Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), who may be as skillful at handling the kids as Grace is, but it’s clear that she’s the main reason he’s working there. Their playful comfort with each other seems so easy that it comes as a shock during a make-out session when Grace erupts, slapping the hell out of him, cracking open the door on her very conflicted psyche.
The movie inches further through that door with the arrival of Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), a sarcastic, smart teenager who keeps the other residents at arm’s length. Explaining that she’ll be living full time with her father again soon, she tells her housemates that she won’t be making friends: “I don’t really like wasting time on short-term relationships.” But Grace slowly draws her out. Both she and Jayden are skilled visual artists, and they get to know each other while sketching together.
Things get complicated, on a number of fronts. To spoil too much would be a disservice to director Destin Cretton and his script, which is both simple and full of surprises and repercussions. Like the script, his direction is straightforward yet interested in digressions and texture. The movie is like the foster care house itself: at times it feels threadbare but cozy, at other times bleak and rife with dysfunction.
Some bad things happen, but many good things do as well. The last act includes a couple of psychological and dramatic shortcuts that seem too easy in retrospect. But you cut this movie slack. “Short Term 12” suggests that experiences in our formative years, both good and bad, can translate into positive, pay-it-forward impulses when we become adults. Yes, some young people are damaged in ways that can seem impossible to heal. But the movie, without piling on fake sentiment or schmaltz, makes you believe that nothing is truly impossible over time.
“Short Term 12.” With Brie Larson, John Gallagher Jr., Kaitlyn Dever. Written and directed by Destin Cretton. Rated R. 96 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.