There's an old expression about how all great art comes from suffering. Writer/director Destin Cretton may not agree with that statement, but his new film 'Short Term 12' is a great testament to it. It is set in a group home for troubled teens, where kids who have been discarded by life are saved and cared for -- at least until they turn 18 and get discarded again. These kids know suffering, and they transform that anguish into fuel for their stunningly beautiful art -- a phrase that applies equally well to the film itself.
It splits its time relatively equally between the lives of the group home's residents and its employees. The most important members of the latter category are Grace (Brie Larson) and Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) co-workers at Short Term 12 who are also secretly dating. It's getting serious too, although Grace, who grew up in places like Short Term 12, still has trouble opening up to Mason about her own troubled past.
Just after Mason welcomes a new member to the staff (Rami Malek), and regales him and us with a hilariously awkward story about his attempt to find a missing kid while desperately having to go to the bathroom, Short Term 12 welcomes a new teen: Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) whose gruff attitude masks abuses she only reveals in the heartbreaking children's book she writes and later reads to Grace. Meanwhile, one of Short Term 12's oldest residents, Moody Marcus (Keith Stanfield) is about to age out of the home; in the meantime, he cares for his pet fish and writes soulful hip-hop songs.
There's little more story than that: Grace and Mason's deepening relationship, their charges' attempts to acclimate to their crummy living arrangements, Grace's connection to Jayden, and Marcus' reaction to the knowledge that his time at Short Term 12 is coming to an end. The film's charms are somewhat difficult to describe: it doesn't boast elaborate plotting or nail-biting cliffhangers or ingenious camera work. The focus is less on what will happen than what does happen, every single day in places like this all over the country, where men and women work incredibly hard to give wayward kids something resembling an ordinary life. Cretton stands back and observes, capturing their pain and their joy, creating a fictional world so convincing in its details you almost believe you're watching a documentary.
Above all, he's made a great showcase for his actors, and they are uniformly outstanding. Larson ('21 Jump Street') is a fascinating enigma as Grace, and the way she and Cretton keep the audience at arms length perfectly mirrors the way she refuses to let anyone, even Mason, know her darkest secrets. Gallagher, a Tony-award winner for 'Spring Awakening' and member of the cast of 'The Newsroom,' nails several lengthy monologues and forges a real connection with Larson. Dever is a working child actor but Stanfield, making his acting debut, is not, and he is a memorable presence, delivering his hip-hop song (backed up by Gallagher on bongo drum) in a single, mesmerizing take.
It's not a comedy, and none of the characters fall into such easy class distinctions, but 'Short Term 12' reminded me a little bit of Paul Feig and Judd Apatow's 'Freaks and Geeks;' Few other films or television shows tackle the subject of adolescence with such honesty and such empathy. Very quickly, Cretton draws us into these characters' lives; within minutes we feel like we've known them for years. Their struggles, their triumphs, and their defeats, all become our own. In its own small and unassuming way, 'Short Term 12' is a brilliant film. For Grace, Mason, Jayden, Marcus, and for all of us, happiness can be an elusive thing. At times, it seems impossible to find. And then once in a while you discover it in the form of an amazing movie like this one.
'Short Term 12' premiered at the 2013 SXSW Film Festival.
Matt Singer is a Webby award winning writer and podcaster. He currently runs the Criticwire blog on Indiewire and co-hosts the Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit podcast. His criticism has appeared in the pages of The Village Voice and Time Out New York and on ‘Ebert Presents at the Movies.’ He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, dog, and a prop sword from the movie ‘Gymkata.’