This review was originally published on March 19, 2013…
“Scar tissue that I wish you saw
Sarcastic mister know-it-all
Close your eyes and I’ll kiss you ’cause
With the birds I’ll share
With the birds I’ll share
This lonely view”
– “Scar Tissue,” The Red Hot Chili Peppers
“You know, when you’re little, you have more endurance than God is ever to grant you again. Children are man at his strongest. They abide.”
Lillian Gish as Rachel Cooper – “Night of the Hunter”
As some of you may know, I had my collective socks knocked off by Destin Daniel Cretton’s Sundance 2011 film “I Am Not A Hipster.” It was a film that not only spoke to me as a fellow frustrated creative type, it also hit me as a lover of music, a crusader for the underdog and an oversensitive, sometimes jerk. I still trumpet the awesomeness of that film and want to again remind you, that it’s available on iTunes and Amazon as well as DVD and you should check it out immediately. “Short Term 12” is Cretton’s follow-up to his first feature and I’m pretty damned sure he’s not going to need my, or anyone’s, help finding an audience because the film he’s made the second time out is simply outstanding. Even though I saw it a scant three months into the new year, I can’t really imagine seeing ten better upcoming films this year, it’s that good.
“Short Term 12” mostly takes place in a short term, a kind of modern day orphanage for troubled youth who are either abandoned or justifiably taken from their horrible parents. Grace (Larson) and Mason (Gallagher Jr.) are the almost war-torn veteran employees of the group home and the film brilliantly opens as new employee Nate (Malek) arrives for his first day of work. I say the move is brilliant because life in Short Term 12 is brutal, sad, funny and infuriating and to explain it wouldn’t do it justice. Yet Cretton allows the audience easy access to this crazy world by having us fall in line with Nate to bare witness to the sheer madness around him. And although we’re eventually handed off to the other, more interesting characters, we get a triple dose of the multi-layered film and the facility right out of the gate.
The kids in this facility are, simply, f****d up. And what’s even more tragic is that it’s not their fault inasmuch as it’s their parents who abuse, abandon and do other unspeakable things that leave scars so deep they will never heal. I genuinely liked every kid the film introduces but was keenly aware that at any minute, they could flip out and do something dangerous and insane. Again, Cretton puts you in a perspective to really feel all sides of a character or situation and it’s a special feat to accomplish. As “Short Term 12” moves forward, the motivations for Mason and particularly Grace come forth in a simple, almost organic way that only real excellence in storytelling and screenwriting can do. But for as empathetic as the film is to every, single character, from screwed up nine-year old to red tape dispensing, middle-aged bureaucrat, we also see the dark side. A side that’s incredibly understandable and human, in terms of both real life and the characters being examined, but also infuriating on so many levels.
I found myself teary-eyed in the film at 3-4 different times and for 3-4 totally different reasons. There’s a real understated power to “Short Term 12” that I appreciated because, for such a touchy subject, it’s easy to clumsily manipulate an audience. Instead the film opts for layers of terrific writing, filming and character development combined with simple brush strokes that add depth to characters and situations rather than going for low hanging, tear-jerking fruit. Again, this is due to Cretton’s excellent script but also due to outstanding performances by everyone in this film.
John Gallagher Jr. as Mason is definitely the most likable and relatable but also probably the most underwritten lead character. However his performance is so wonderful and engaging, you feel like you know him by film’s end. Sadly I just don’t have the space to go into every “child actor” in this film and single out their performance but across the board, their performances are astounding. They’re the glue that holds “Short Term 12” together on-screen and it’s a marvel that this group of youngsters was found let alone put together in one film. Although everyone is great onscreen there’s no doubt that this film is Brie Larson’s coming out party. She’s fantastic. I’ve always been a fan of her wry sweetness in roles that have bounced between supporting and borderline cameo but here she shows she can truly carry a dramatic lead role.
Larson’s Grace is almost a microcosm of everyone in the film and even what the film is about at its emotional center. She’s a good-hearted person striving to overcome personal demons that can one minute lead her towards being a role-model and leader, capable of anything, to a frustrating basket case who you almost can’t believe you felt empathy towards mere moments before. It’s a simply outstanding, nuanced performance that I really wasn’t expecting. I give full credit to Cretton for selecting Larson as the lead but also to Larson for taking on a role that is heroic, intense and somewhat upsetting. I was blown away.
In fact, the entirety of “Short Term 12” blew me away and if I could fire it up and watch it again right now, I would. There’s much to dig into here and I haven’t even mentioned that the film is also really, really funny. I hate to keep harping on it but I think it’s a special kind of filmmaker who can make you laugh, cringe, cry and fill up with positive emotion in less than two hours. Destin Daniel Cretton has made such a film.