Dir/Wri: Destin Cretton • Pro: Joshua Astrachen, Asher Goldstein, Ron Najor, Maren Olson • DOP: Brett Powlak • Ed: Nat Sanders • Cast: Brie Larson, John Gallagher Jr., Rami Malek Stephanie Beatriz, Keith Stanfield, Kaithlyn Dever, Kevin Hernandez
Short Term 12, which has garnered ecstatic reviews stateside, follows Grace (Larsson), her co-worker and boyfriend Mason (Gallagher Jr.) and other co-workers as they go about their daily routine in a foster home facility for under-privileged children and teenagers. Nate (Rami Malek, last season in The Master) is starting his first day of work in the facility as the film begins and acts as an avatar for the audience to guide them into this world before quickly being moved firmly into the background in favour of an emphasis on Grace and Mason, and the troubled children, in particular Marcus (Keith Stanfield) and Jayden (Kaithlin Dever). We also get a glimpse of the impact this type of work has on Grace and Mason’s private life and their relationship.
Films such as these that deal with harrowing subject matter in a hopeful way are generally unquestionable in their good intentions yet also generally remind viewers of that old adage about the road to hell. Happily, this film sits well above the average film about underprivileged teens and the inspirational carers/teachers who inspire them, however faint that praise may be. This is down largely to some tremendous power-house performances. Larsson, Gallagher Jr, Malek and Beatriz are all good, but it is the younger performers – particularly the aforementioned Stanfield and Dever – that really stand out here. The performances are helped by intimate direction from Cretton. All this adds up to some very poignant and genuinely moving individual scenes.
That is not to say that the film is not at home to manipulation. The scene in which Jayden tells Grace about her abusive father by way of a short story she has written about a shark and an octopus is certainly designed to pull at the heartstrings. However, when realised with such intensity, it is hard to disengage one’s emotions. It is an undeniably powerful scene, and one that rings true to the viewer, despite the faint whiff of manipulation that surrounds it. Marcus has a similar scene in which he relates the depth his problems, this time to Mason, through rap. Once again, on paper this scene sounds terribly manipulative and trite, but the direction and performers raise these sequences to a level, not quite of transcendence, but well, well above what one would expect.
Unfortunately the film as a whole fails to conjure up the same power that some of the individual moments do. There is something of a saccharine taste from the film when taken as an overall package. While it is in places far grittier than most films of its kind, it still can’t shake the inevitable problems that arise from this type of subject matter. The problems in question are the mix of sentiment and grit that is necessary to explore such a topic that is sadly only too visible in everyday life. If one were to forego sentiment and hope altogether then an endeavour such as this would seem hopelessly nihilistic and pointless. Yet the ultimate emphasis on the positive-being the care these workers show the children and the hope that these children can still lead full, happy lives – as opposed to the negative aspects of childhood abuse and neglect can’t help but seem somewhat naive and undermines the power and the ferocity of some of the vignettes on show in this film. It also highlights the fact that despite all the things the film has in its favour it ultimately has little new to say on this topic.
As well as these concerns, the film unfortunately also very clearly slips into both melodrama and cliché towards the end of the film as Grace is forced to fight ‘The Man’ in her attempts to help Jayden. However, despite these flaws, the film is still worth seeing for the sheer emotional intensity of some of its scenes coupled with the potential for greater things that can be seen in Cretton’s direction and in the performances of Stanfield, Dever and the cast in general.
Sadly not the masterpiece some critics have hailed it has, but rather than it’s good intentions leading it to hell as most films of its kind, this one sits comfortably in limbo.
15A (See IFCO for details)
Short Term 12 is released on 1st November 2013