If you had blinked you might have missed Short Term 12 when it was released in cinemas here in the UK last year, but that comes with the territory with this kind of film. Small-scale, extremely American in its earnestness, and heartfelt almost to a fault, Daniel Destin Cretton’s film, based on his own experiences working at a facility for troubled teenagers, is a moving, lovingly-crafted little indie, its faults stemming only from its overzealousness to make you care about its characters.
Brie Larson stars as a social worker at the eponymous facility, a woman who has far more to deal with than she’s letting on as she navigates the care and wellbeing of 10-20 kids who come from broken homes, mental illness, and who knows what else – we only really hear the story of two of them, Marcus (Keith Stanfield) and Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), but even the most seemingly well-adjusted amongst their ranks have obvious issues to deal with. The film’s best scenes are borne from Larson and her colleagues’ attempts to deal with and get through to these kids, having to be both friends and parent figures at once (though Larson pointedly tells a new worker that they are to be neither) whilst occasionally having to restrain the kids in their care by force. The film is concerned with the tools and processes that they use to get through to these kids and being the healing process, and the most tender and moving moments in the film are when these workers’ efforts are rewarded with breakthroughs, as when the stoic and near-silent Marcus raps about growing up being forced to deal drugs by his mother, or when Jayden reaches out to Grace and tries to tell her about her abusive father.
Marcus’s rap is the film’s zenith or its nadir depending on your outlook – the film’s overwhelming sincerity may be too much for some viewers, whilst others will find its intensity cathartic. f this all sounds a little too earnest for your liking then it only gets worse – Grace is also pregnant by her colleague, the adorable floppy haired rocker Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), something she’s not dealing with very well due to her own abusive childhood – and all this is coinciding with her father coming out of the prison he’s been in for ten years. At some points Short Term 12 comes across as a steady procession of issues that fail to possess any narrative resonance beyond cheap tearjerking. Thankfully, though, it never comes to that – the film’s climax might seem a tad histrionic given the realism of the scenes that led to it, but the film has such an intuitive empathy that keeps us on its side.
In some ways, it’s hard to criticise a film Short Term 12. It is so well-intentioned, and so earnest with it, that finding fault with it feels akin to badmouthing a puppy because it has a wet nose. So it’s a relief that it accomplishes what it sets out to so well, providing a window into an institution like this that is at once welcoming and harrowing, opening up its world to us so that we can understand it, and those who end up there, better. One comes away from it feeling that we have witnessed a wealth of young talent, both in front of and behind the camera, that we may never have gotten to if it weren’t for institutions like this one. Short Term 12 may not be perfect, but it is undoubtedly a Good Thing.