A film that hits viewers square in the heart without ever seeking pity or condolence, Short Term 12 is a marvel of independent filmmaking. Brie Larson (Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, United States of Tara) plays Grace, a quietly alert, honest, and self-effacing supervisor at a foster-care facility for at-risk youth. An observer, Grace never garners attention for herself and, in turn, engenders all-too-real emotions from the troubled kids around her. Through this stark subtlety, Larson inadvertently becomes the centerpiece of the film.
By not chewing scenery but simply letting things unfold as they would and should, Larson phenomenally embodies a figure of unwavering strength and support, even as her inner demons threaten to overtake her own meager solidity. She not only addresses the daily stresses and anxieties experienced by the unsettled youths in her care, but she also confronts her own history of abuse and abandonment, as her imprisoned father faces an impending release from a state penitentiary. She makes such little noise, and yet you can’t take your eyes off of her.
John Gallagher Jr. plays Grace’s cheery boyfriend and fellow caretaker, Mason. The two are practically still kids themselves, and yet they fully understand that all they can really give to these teens, and to each other, is an ear, a shoulder, and a heart. It may not be enough for everyone, but it’s the best shot that any one of these kids has got, including the adult supervisors.
Along with Brie Larson’s awards-worthy performance, the film is also exceedingly adept at magnifying the needs of children who lack a sturdy home base. Director Destin Daniel Cretton, expanding from his 2008 short film of the same name, cautiously poses a concern too often overlooked or downright ignored: Without the reinforcement of parents or guardians bestowing unconditional love, how can kids ever perceive that they are worthy of it at all?
Short Term 12’s renderings of the longing to be valued, particularly for those who don’t quite know how to love themselves, are exemplary, and each character has his/her own sense of identity and singularity. We all need a little relief along the way, and if we can’t count on our families to assist in picking up the pieces, we’ve got to find alternative footholds. If this film is any indication, the best way to start over might just be by asking for a little help from our friends