August 23, 2013



SHORT TERM 12:  Run To the Multiplex – Powerful and Moving Indie Drama

How can I make you want to see SHORT TERM 12?  It’s one of the year’s best pictures, but I feel as though describing the plot and setting will make it sound like a collection of the preachiest kind of pat do-gooder indie cliches.  Who wants to fork over their ticket money to spend time in a state facility for deeply troubled, at-risk children and teenagers, mostly poor and minority, and endure their difficult lives and those of their caretakers?

And yet, Short Term 12 is a reminder that emotional honesty, great storytelling and phenomenal performances can elevate the most unpromising material, and that a simple shot of one or two people baring their hearts on screen can have more impact than millions of dollars worth of CG magic.  Writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton, whose second film this is, worked in one of these places himself, and every moment in Short Term 12 feels lived-in and experienced.

The movie’s particular facility–called “short term” because its residents can only remain until they turn 18–is located in LA.  It houses youths who can’t be placed with foster families, mostly because their emotional difficulties make them undesirable, and despite the stigma that the phrase “put into the system” has acquired in movies and TV shows, it’s not a terrible place.  It’s clean and pleasant enough, in a public-works way, and most of the people who work there care deeply about their charges.  Chief among them is a supervisor named Grace (Brie Larson), who’s both the most tartly professional of the staff–she knows all the kids’s tricks–and the most open wound.  Grace is having a committed and barely-hidden relationship with fellow staffer Mason (John Gallagher, Jr, better known as Jim from The Newsroom), and when we meet Grace, the mounting complications of that relationship and the crises of some of the residents are bringing Grace to a precipice of her own.   The final catalyst is the arrival of Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), who comes from much more comfortable circumstances than her fellow residents, but who’s brittle and broken in ways that hit Grace in a very personal way.  Other notable characters include Marcus (Keith Stanfield), who’s nearing his 18th birthday and who is at turns sullenly silent and brilliantly articulate; and Luis (Kevin Hernandez), who clashes with Sammy (Alex Calloway), a younger boy and constant hyper (more like supersonic) flight risk.

Brie Larson isn’t an unknown actress; she was Toni Collette’s daughter on The United States of Tara, and she’s tended to be typed as either the snappy teen, as she mostly was on Tara (that show was written by Diablo Cody, and Larson had the most Juno-ish dialogue), or as a “pretty girl” (The Spectacular Now, 21 Jump Street).  Nothing she’s done before could prepare one for the intensity and scope of her work here.  It’s a stunning performance, the kind that feels like the actor has opened up a figurative vein on screen.  Gallagher, freed from the rat-a-tat rhythms of Aaron Sorkinland, is able to give Mason space and calm, and we understand how he and Grace work as a couple–and how they may not.  The young actors are remarkable, never cloying or studied, and they embrace the complications of their characters.

Short Term 12 is, to an extent–not in a meta way–about narrative itself.  It begins and ends with extended sequences of the staffers telling stories about the kids and rating each other by how well they’re told; throughout, some of the most riveting sequences are one character or another telling their own histories.  Cretton has an appreciation for how thrilling and absorbing the tale of a real life can be, that day-to-day heroes can be as fascinating as the super kind, and standing up to one’s fears can be as much of a challenge as facing off with a villain plotting world domination.  Sometimes the stories are familiar–it doesn’t take much to guess what Jayden’s secret will turn out to be, or why Grace feels a bond with her–but their emotions are honestly earned, and each moment is particularized, not allowed to be formulaic.  Cretton also has the confidence in his material not to gimmick it up unnecessarily:  Brett Pawluk’s photography is simple and lovely, and Nat Sanders’s editing allows the action to flow, without jittery hand-held camerawork or look-at-me jumpy cutting.

Make what you will about the fact that two of the year’s most exciting pieces of storytelling, TV’s Orange Is the New Black and now Short Term 12, are about people in one form of captivity or another.  Short Term 12 is exactly what an indie film is supposed to be, a small-scale but hugely affecting work by talents we hadn’t seen or fully appreciated before.  It hasn’t made things easy for itself, substituting quality for star value and a high-concept premise, but like its characters, it deserves some attention and a measure of hard-won victory.



About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."