The best and worst thing about Grace is that she cares too much. She works in a halfway house for teenagers, and she has abundant reserves of empathy. She can get the most hardened kid to open, and can calm down the mentally disturbed with a simple, caring stare. But Grace has her own issues, which ironically are what make her so gifted. Destin Cretton’s Short Term 12 is the story of Grace and how one particular teenager unearths dormant feelings of pain. Cretton relies on an effective formula – the plot unfolds with gentle but predictable reveals – but the performances and thoughtfully-developed characters are what stand out.
Brie Larson, who until recently has mostly played high school students, stars as Grace. When we first meet her, her boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) is telling a story to Nate (Rami Malek), the new guy. Nate eases us into to the daily business of the facility: there are community meetings, chores, and games. All the kids seem alright, more or less, except for Marcus (Keith Stanfield), who’s sullen because he has to leave when he turns eighteen next week. At their homey apartment, Grace and Mason live modestly but happily. His decency and good nature is unwavering, yet Grace puts him to the test because she refuses to share her past with him. Once Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) appears at work, Grace’s troubling past bubbles to the surface because she sees herself in the young woman.
The most fascinating thing about Short Term 12 is how the characters’ approach to their job is a reflection of their personality. Grace relies on her unique combination of empathy and authority: she’s a stickler to the rules except when breaking them will help establish a rapport. In a crucial scene, Grace intuits that Jayden will open up only after she lets her guard down first, and symmetry of their troubled pasts is heartbreaking. Mason’s demeanor is the opposite of Grace’s. He lets himself be the butt of the joke so that kids see him as less of an authority figure; he knows exactly what he’s doing even when the kids think he’s clueless. Cretton worked in foster care facilities before directing Short Term 12, and it shows. All the scenes feel credible even when they veer toward melodrama. Cretton’s shooting style is a good match to this material. With minimal make-up and natural lighting, his camera bobs through the facility as if it’s another curious kid.
Gallagher Jr. and Larson have natural chemistry – he’s a naturally likable actor, she’s always strong and vulnerable – and one of the movie’s joys is to learn all the lived-in details about their relationship. There is a funny, understated scene where Grace and Mason sketch portraits of each other, and Cretton includes the kind of pitch-perfect detail/joke that a lesser filmmaker wouldn’t even consider. Their connection goes deeper still: they both come from broken homes, and while Mason can look to parts of his past fondly, Grace shuts it out.
But for all the strong performances from the adults, the teenagers nearly steal the show. As Jayden, Dever has the most to do. Her character is rude and violent, yet her transition into Grace’s thoughtful friend is convincing and delicate. Still, the strongest performance is from Stanfield. At first Marcusspeaks forcefully, barely moving his mouth, and we can hear the aching vulnerability underneath. He opens up only when he performs a hip-hop verse with Mason – the care workers all encourage the kids to express themselves, and it works – and we don’t learn the scene’s significance until Mason discusses his own background. The Marcus subplot wraps up off camera, and hearing Mason talk about it reveals just how much of himself he sees in him. It’s not always subtle, but Cretton suggests the only way they can do this job is if Mason, Grace, and others continually rely on their empathy.
Short Term 12 develops a plot alongside all the community meetings and birthday parties. It involves Grace, Jayden, and her future with Mason. Cretton hits all the notes well – there are is heartbreak and catharsis in equal measure – yet the movie works without Grace’s big epiphany. Short Term 12 is at its strongest when Cretton simply watches just how Grace and Mason interact with the kids. There is enough personality and drama there, and while Grace’s arc does not exactly feel tacked in, it seems as if Cretton does not truly believe in the strength of his premise. One minor grievance aside, Short Term 12 is a lovely, affecting drama that never makes the mistake of condescending to its characters.