By Bill Wine
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – Forgettable title, memorable movie.
The drama, Short Term 12, is named for its setting, which is a ward in a group foster home for at-risk teenagers managed by the caring practitioners of tough love in charge of them.
The film drops in on the short-term residential foster-care facility in order to introduce us to the no-nonsense staff of mostly twentysomethings, who have doubts and conflicts of their own and report to senior therapists, and the residents, who are troubled teens making their way, not always smoothly, through the foster-care system.
Sexual abuse, drug addiction, eating disorders, depression, self-mutilation, and the threat of violence directed at others: all are problems that have surfaced before and will surface again here, and the staff is prepared to deal with them in a modest but impactful film that crackles with authenticity. So it’s not surprising to learn that director Destin Cretton (I Am Not a Hipster) worked as a staffer in a similar center for two years as his first post-college job.
This is Cretton’s second feature and is based on his prize-winning, same-titled 2008 short.
The caretaker counselors in the trenches at the ungated suburban group home, general manager Grace and co-worker Mason, are former foster children themselves and are in a surreptitious live-in romantic relationship. Of course, their big secret is no secret to the young people they see every day.
But it’s Grace’s past and present secrets from Mason that pose a threat to their relationship, which finds him much more forthcoming, and thus frustrated in his desire for permanence, than she has been thus far.
Neither sentimental nor cynical, Short Term 12 is emotionally powerful despite being dramatically understated. That’s because the minutiae of the daily routine is as important as the melodramatic flourishes we know we’re headed for. And because the delineation of the characters, for whom the director’s compassion is clear, is so nuanced and and convincing. There’s an almost semi-documentary feel to much of it, mostly because of the lived-in characters, who are essentially members of an extended family.
Brie Larson, as empathetic but stubbornly authoritarian Grace, and John Gallagher Jr., as affable and experienced but personally vulnerable Mason, are first-rate, superbly natural. And their supporting cast of residents (Keith Stanfield, Kaitlyn Dever, Alex Calloway, Kevin Hernandez, Lydia Du Veaux) and staff (Stephanie Beatriz, Rami Malek, Frantz Turner, Diana Maria Riva) are well cast and knowingly directed.
So we’ll rehab 3 stars out of 4. The long and the short of Short Term 12 is that, emotionally speaking, it goes a long way in a short time.