“Short Term 12” is a film about scars, some physical, others emotional, but all examined with a sensitivity and understanding that cuts deep. Set in a group home for damaged adolescents where staff members face many of the same challenges as their young charges, this compelling human drama finds fresh energy in the inspirational-teacher genre, constantly revealing new layers to its characters — none more complex than Brie Larson’s thick-skinned supervisor. Inexplicably passed over by Sundance (which awarded a short version its 2009 jury prize), the stunning SXSW fest winner puts the recent Park City competition lineup to shame.
Facing hazing on his first day of work, a new employee (Rami Malek) instantly realizes he’s approaching things from the wrong angle when the teens object to him calling them “underprivileged kids.” Most already have more life experience under their belts than this outsider does, and the pic uses his arrival to plunge into the environment and show auds the ropes. Avoiding traditional exposition, the script never states the exact rules of the facility beyond the fact that the resident of Short Term 12 (whose time is supposed to be capped at a year, though many stay longer) are free to leave if they choose, and establishing that tragedy often finds those who try to re-enter the world before they’re ready.
It’s up to the staff to protect the teens’ safety, whether that means keeping an eye on the front gate or searching their rooms for contraband (in particular, sharp objects must be kept away from cutters). The film focuses on two counselors, Grace and Mason (relatable guy-next-door type John Gallagher, Jr.), who maintain a professional distance at work while tentatively trying to build a romantic relationship on the side.
Early on, Grace visits her doctor to confirm her pregnancy — her second — but is unwilling to spill the news until she decides how to handle it. At work, she insists the teens learn to communicate their emotions, but she’s suppressed her own for so long, she doesn’t even recognize the hypocrisy. Her firm exterior starts to erode with the arrival of a new girl, Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever, simultaneously delicate and tough), a suicide-risk smart aleck whose bad attitude triggers painful memories.
Although the facility’s care involves dedicated sessions with trained therapists (left almost entirely offscreen), the doctors don’t spend nearly as much time with the kids as the other staffers do, and tensions frequently arise when suggested treatments don’t align with what the on-the-ground counselors observe on a daily basis. While role-model Mason alternates between telling goofy anecdotes and offering a much-needed ear, Grace privately debates whether to get an abortion, too jaded by life to recognize what an effective audition her work experience has been for motherhood.
Writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton, who based the pic on his own experience working at such an institution, embraces contradictions like these throughout, creating characters that are anything but simplistic, and encouraging his cast to explore all their dimensions. In fact, the ensemble is fully rounded enough that “Short Term 12” could just as easily have launched a TV series. Larson makes the most of the meticulously crafted script, designed like an artichoke to reveal its heart slowly as new information comes to light with each scene.
Any time the story has a chance to fall back on cliche, it breaks off in a different direction, allowing audiences to be emotionally blindsided by sincere, well-earned moments — as when Keith Stanfield’s character shares a rap song that puts his personal frustration into words, or in Jayden’s story about an octopus and a shark. It’s a tricky tone to maintain, and Cretton expertly alternates between raw feeling and restraint.
Instead of manipulating with music, composer Joel P. West supplies just enough score to open up the possibility of deeper identification. The pic’s only technical shortcoming is its topsy-turvy lensing: Steadier camerawork wouldn’t have sacrificed the naturalism, though post-production color manipulation gives the deliberately unstable proceedings an optimistic glow.