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The Believable “Short Term 12” Features Beautiful Performances

November 18, 2013

By John Corrado

Short Term 12 PosterMarcus (Keith Stanfield) sits on the edge of his bed at the group home where he has lived for several years, as the kind social worker Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) sits down beside him and starts to play a simple beat on the drum.  Marcus starts to rap the words he has just written, the lyrics providing details of his backstory that he is scared to openly talk about.

“Look into my eyes so you know what it’s like, to live a life not knowing what a normal life’s like,” he reveals in time to the beat, leaving Mason speechless.  Marcus is about to turn eighteen, and will no longer be a client of the system where he was raised.  This is probably the best scene in Short Term 12, which opened over the weekend at TIFF Bell Lightbox.

The film is named for the group home at the heart of the story, a foster care facility run under the dedicated supervision of Grace (Brie Larson).  There is an offbeat rhythm to both her life with her boyfriend Mason and their work together at the facility, from coaxing the sullen Luis (Kevin Hernandez) out of bed with a Super Soaker, to chasing the depressed Sammy (Alex Calloway) down the lawn as he tries to make his escape.  But the arrival of Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) threatens to derail this precarious balance, as Grace starts to recognize long hidden parts of herself behind the attitude of this emotionally disturbed teen girl.

As the story goes along, we start to realize that Grace is being hypocritical by not facing up to her own tragic past, and she needs serious help just as much as these kids.  Brie Larson believably conveys the material every step of the way, bringing a striking amount of depth to this character.  The young actress also delivered memorable supporting work in The Spectacular Now and a had few wonderful moments in Don Jon, and 2013 will surely be remembered as her breakout year.  Both her performance here and the film itself could draw comparisons to Jennifer Lawrence’s work in Winter’s Bone back in 2010.

There are several touching and heartbreaking moments throughout Short Term 12 as the film provides an honest look into this world, and for me the storyline with Marcus is the most moving and unique aspect of the story.  Newcomer Keith Stanfield delivers a remarkably nuanced performance, and the struggles that he faces as he ages out of the social work system feel painfully real and is something that I’ve never really seen done before in this way.  These scenes and his story will stick with you long after leaving the theatre, as we genuinely come to care about this character.

The parts of Short Term 12 that really work are worth celebrating, but I can’t help feeling that the film as a whole is very good where it could have been great.  The friendship that ultimately develops between Grace and Jayden goes a few places in the last act that didn’t quite work for me.  The resolution of their stories skirts the edge of predictability and feels a bit too easy, as we get the sense that their problems are going to linger far longer than the narrative is able or perhaps even willing to show.  But these are only minor quibbles compared to the parts of the film that work so well.

Gaining buzz on the festival circuit after picking up the Audience Award at SXSW back in March, I think this one could easily gain an even bigger following now that more people are able to see it.  Working from a screenplay based on his 2008 short film of the same name, writer and director Destin Cretton paints a compassionate portrait of the foster care world, shedding honest light on the people and little moments that might sadly get lost in the shuffle in real life.  Beautifully carried by the performances of the entire cast, it’s these little moments that ultimately make Short Term 12 so believable and worth seeing.

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