Short Term 12 was a film I heard about but never got around to seeing. I go to the theater often, and even though I’m in Atlanta, I often miss the smaller indies when they’re in theaters. Thank goodness for Netflix! What a gem this movie is! It’s one of the best reviewed films of 2013, and it deserves every bit of praise it gets. The concept of the film is simple. A 20-something supervising staff member of a residential treatment facility for troubled kids navigates the waters of that world alongside her co-worker and longtime boyfriend. That doesn’t sound like an exciting ride does it? I’m almost positive that if I pitched that to friends, the response would be lukewarm at best. “Why would you make that?” “That sounds depressing.” I can hear the responses in my head. Despite the seemingly dry premise, the movie rises above, creating complex characters and deep human moments that put a lump in your throat. Writer/Director Destin Daniel Cretton based the film on a short film of the same name, modeled after his experiences working with troubled kids. The old saying “you write what you know” couldn’t be more true. It might seem like I’m gushing too hard over this movie, like it can’t be as good as I make it sound, but it is.
The subject matter makes the film difficult to watch at times. It’s not comfortable. It digs deep into the nasty side of life, but it manages to leave you with hope, and the realization that relationships are what make life tolerable, and only together can we heal. This is why I love indie film so much. Smaller character driven stories that dive head first into the human condition. The performances are top notch, and every character gets their moment to shine, even the smaller supporting roles of all ages. There isn’t a single moment in the film that feels fake, and I’m extremely strict on that sort of thing. Brie Larson is a revelation in the role of Grace. Who is this woman!? She’s been in a few other things but nothing that lets her grab hold of a character like this. If this had gotten more widespread industry attention, I bet an Oscar Nomination would’ve been a lock for Miss Larson. Her co-star, John Gallagher Jr. from The Newsroom plays Mason, and he’s compelling in every scene he touches. The relationship between Mason and Grace is more authentic and raw than most movies I see today. They’re two people with dark pasts who’ve found one another. Their love and romance is genuine and messy. That gives things a dynamic you don’t see much due to the subject matter of their pasts. Mason’s character is someone we all wish we could be or be friends with. He’s fun, likable, and he’s been through hell, but that hasn’t broken down his personality. If anything, it’s helped create it, and given him more vigor to understand and be patient with the kids he works with (and his girl), something I think we can all admit we suck at. Another standout is Keith Stanfield who plays Marcus. The only credit he had before this was The Purge: Anarchy. He practically rips your heart out in the film, especially when he raps his “new beats” for Mason. The scene starts with you chuckling, feeling sad soon after, then speechless. All I could do is gulp when it was over. I wish we had more scenes like that in films that cost 100 times more. Are you listening Hollywood?
“Look into my eyes so you know what it’s like to live a life not knowing what a normal life’s like.” – Marcus
Another surprise is Kaitlyn Dever as Jayden. Like the character of Marcus, she has her own moment that leaves you speechless when she shares a story she wrote. I won’t go into that any farther or I risk spoiling the film, but the scene is heartbreaking. However, she also cracked me up more than once with her dry and sarcastic humor, though you know deep hurt has fueled it. Humor is another area where this film excels which helps you navigate the darkness. A scene where Jayden’s character has a disturbing meltdown makes you sad, but jokes a moment later diffuse things. It’s a really weird mix of emotions, but it makes the film so enjoyable. Later on in Act 3 we come to the films darkest and most intense moment, and even that moment is wrapped up with a humorous line, delivered again, by Jayden. This film is an absolute rollercoaster of emotion that excels at every peak and valley. Some may dislike the look of the film, which is very flat and desaturated, but I think the feel of the movie puts you in the moment. I was never distracted. The film almost feels like a documentary, with you peaking in on the real lives of those on-screen.
I could go on forever about what makes Short Term 12 so good, but I think you need to see the movie for yourself. I can’t wait to see what Writer/Director Destin Daniel Cretton cooks up next. My expectations are very high. Movies this authentic do not come around often. These sort of films make me excited as a filmmaker. You don’t need $10 million to make something great. You do however need a fantastic script and great actors, something most people don’t have, but this film does. There’s a reason this film dazzled critics and viewers alike. Short Term 12 is an indie gem with heart and authenticity that can’t be ignored.
Short Term 12 is Rated-R for language and brief sexuality.