Roger Ebert often said that it was never the sad moments in movies that made him cry, but rather when characters were unexpectedly kind to one another. I thought about that line a lot during Short Term 12, probably because the movie reduced me to a puddle somewhere around the 40-minute mark, and I remained that way for the following hour.
Here’s a movie overflowing with compassion, warmth and good humor. There are no villains in writer-director Destin Cretton’s second feature—just some decent people trying to make the best of a rotten situation. Based in part upon the filmmaker’s own experiences working in a temporary foster home facility, the movie follows a few 20-somethings caring for troubled teens who have fallen between the cracks. These aren’t therapists; their job is simply “to provide a safe environment for the kids until the state figures out what to do with them.”
Easier said than done. The workaday rollercoaster is established with brisk efficiency even before the opening credits. Kibbutzing over pre-shift coffees and smokes, Grace (Brie Larson) and Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) lay out the rules for newbie Nate (Rami Malek), along with an amusing anecdote about chasing down a runaway charge after eating a bad taco. Cretton interrupts the tale with a sublime bit of physical slapstick before finishing it with an offhanded punch to the gut. Comedy and tragedy don’t just go hand and hand here at Short Term 12; they alternate on a moment-by-moment basis.
Larson’s Grace runs the floor with an unflappable, seen-it-all authority. She grew up in places like this, so there’s not much these kids can do to surprise her. Whether waking them up with Super-Soakers or defusing a violent meltdown, she’s a model of approachable, no-bullshit professionalism. It’s only off the clock, in a not-so-secret romantic relationship with Gallagher Jr.’s Mason, that we’re allowed to see the cracks in Grace’s carefully maintained facade. There is a secret, private hurt she’s still not ready to reveal, glimmers of which ripple through Larson’s brilliantly understated performance.
There’s also tension in the unit, as Marcus (Keith Stanfield) is approaching his 18th birthday, at which point he’ll be discharged—or more aptly, discarded—back into the world. He’s acting out, and understandably so. What the movie gets so heartbreakingly right is the self-protective mechanism of shutting down and shutting out those who care most. Movingly mirrored in Grace’s scenes at home with Mason, it’s a pattern of pre-emptive rejection, one the movie is not naïve enough to pretend can be easily broken.
The arrival of Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) complicates things further. She’s a cutter with an asshole of a father, circumstances that feel awfully familiar for Grace. Jayden’s got a quicksilver intelligence that becomes a formidable challenge in the discipline department, and Dever and Larson verbally spar with a quippy animosity that gorgeously blossoms over time into trust and admiration.
Of course, that’s no magic cure. Short Term 12 knows there’s no such thing. You’re not going to find Robin Williams saying “It’s not your fault” over and over again until everybody lives happily ever after. Healing is slow going and a daily grind. The most that our protagonists can offer these damaged children is their attention and some stability, but some days that makes all the difference. There’s a marvelous moment in which the stubborn, inarticulate Marcus finally opens up to Mason, rapping his feelings about having to leave the facility. The point of the scene (and the film) isn’t that these problems are even solvable, but just that they’re easier to face when they are shared.
With a couple of developments, Cretton’s script veers dangerously close to melodrama. The biographical parallels between Grace and Jayden are a bit too tidy, with one glaringly out-of-place oversized confrontation that feels like it came from a screenwriter’s manual instead of real life. But the movie quickly course-corrects and returns to the small-scaled details that make it so beautiful.
There’s a gentle humanism here that reminds me of early Jonathan Demme pictures. Even the most emotional scenes are punctuated by jokes, the way life is so often funny and sad at the same time. Gallagher Jr. plays an insufferable prat on HBO’s The Newsroom, but then so does everybody else on that show. Here, his Mason has a shaggy nobility, radiating tenderness and patience. Thus far, Larson has mainly been consigned to arm candy roles in Hollywood comedies; this is a huge breakthrough and a major performance.
The deliberately unresolved ending of Short Term 12 echoes its opening—life goes on as it always did. What matters along the way are little gestures of kindness and the reassurance that you don’t have to go through this all alone.