×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

SXSW Review: ‘Short Term 12’

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.

Short Term 12

Reviewed at SXSW Film Festival (competing), March 11, 2013. Running time: 96 MIN.

An Animal Kingdom presentation of a Traction Media production in association with Animal Kingdom, San Francisco Film Society, Kenneth Rainin Foundation. (International sales: Cinetic Media, New York; Traction Media, Los Angeles.) Produced by Maren Olson, Asher Goldstein, Joshua Astrachan, Ron Najor. Executive producers, Frederick W. Green, Douglas Stone, David Kaplan. Co-producers, Nathan Kelly, M. Elizabeth Hughes, Amanda Johnson-Zetterstrom.

Directed, written by Destin Daniel Cretton. Camera (color, HD), Brett Pawlak; editor, Nat Sanders; music, Joel P. West; production designer, Rachel Myers; costume designers, Mirren Gordon-Crozier, Joy Cretton; sound, John Maynard; supervising sound editors, Onnalee Blank, Branden Spencer; stunt coordinators, Michael Gaines, Jason Gray, Rene Paul Moussex; assistant director, Jacques Terblanche; casting, Rich Delia.

With: Brie Larson, John Gallagher Jr., Kaitlyn Dever, Rami Malek, Keith Stanfield, Kevin Hernandez, Melora Walters, Stephanie Beatriz, Lydia Du Veaux, Alex Calloway, Frantz Turner, Diana Maria Riva.

SXSW Review: 'Short Term 12'

More Film

  • Playables and Double Fine Film 'KIDS'

    Playables and Double Fine Creation 'Kids' Chosen for Berlinale

    “Kids,” a short film from Playables and Double Fine Presents, has been officially selected to screen at the 69th Berlin International Film Festival, announced Thursday via press release. The Berlin International Film Festival, commonly called the Berlinale, is one of the largest film festivals in the world. “Kids” will screen in a Berlinale sidebar called Generation. [...]

  • Roland Joffe

    Roland Joffe to Direct Mobster Drama 'The Legitimate Wiseguy'

    Roland Joffe will direct the independent mobster drama “The Legitimate Wiseguy,” Variety has learned exclusively. Joffe received Academy Award nominations for best director for “The Killing Fields” and “The Mission,” which won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1986. He also helmed “The Scarlet Letter,” “The Forgiven,” “City of Joy,” “Time Traveller,” and “There [...]

  • Christian Bale (left) as Dick Cheney

    Berlin Adds 'Vice,' New Films by Zhang Yimou and Andre Techine to Official Lineup

    Five new titles, including the latest films from Zhang Yimou and Andre Techine, have joined the official selection of this year’s Berlin Film Festival. Adam McKay’s “Vice” has also been added, but will screen out of competition. “Vice” has already won a Golden Globe for star Christian Bale’s portrayal of former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney [...]

  • Picture Tree Adds ‘Cold Feet’ to

    Picture Tree Adds ‘Cold Feet’ to Berlin Market Lineup (EXCLUSIVE)

    Picture Tree Intl. has added German romantic comedy “Cold Feet” (Kalte Füsse) to its market lineup at the Berlin Film Festival, where the sales agent will screen the film as a market premiere. Sony Pictures released the pic, directed Wolfgang Groos, in Germany on Thursday, and it garnered 100,000 admissions over its opening weekend. “Cold [...]

  • Neil Burger

    'Upside' Director Neil Burger Sets Sci-Fi 'Voyagers' as Next Project

    “The Upside” director Neil Burger is set to direct sci-fi thriller “Voyagers” as his next project. The film will be fully financed and co-produced by Stuart Ford’s AGC Studios, and produced by Burger’s Nota Bene Productions and Basil Iwanyk’s Thunder Road Films. AGC also handles international sales on the new film. Written and directed by [...]

  • Berlin: M-Appeal Acquires Panorama Title ‘Greta’

    M-Appeal Acquires Berlin Panorama Title ‘Greta’ (EXCLUSIVE)

    M-Appeal has acquired world sales rights to “Greta,” the feature debut of Brazil’s Armando Praça which will world premiere in this year’s Berlinale Panorama section. The Berlin-based film industry has also dropped an international trailer, to which Variety has had exclusive access. More Reviews Film Review: 'All These Small Moments' TV Review: HBO's 'Brexit' Produced [...]

  • Kew Media Boards Michael Jackson Documentary

    Kew Media Boards Michael Jackson Documentary 'Leaving Neverland' for International

    Kew Media Distribution has boarded controversial Michael Jackson sex-abuse documentary “Leaving Neverland” ahead of its world premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Kew Media has taken international distribution rights (excluding U.K. and U.S.) to the two-part documentary, which is a co-production of HBO and British broadcaster Channel 4. Directed by BAFTA-winner Dan Reed, “Leaving [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content