Short Term 12
This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 29th December 2013
Uneven handheld photography and young people mumbling their way through laconic anecdotes initally give this little indie movie the impression of a documentary. While the subject matter is indeed sadly all too non-fiction in today’s world, Short Term 12 unfolds into a touching story about the pain we humans cause one another and the compassionate people who dedicate themselves to picking up the pieces.
Set in a home for disenfranchised and “at risk” youth, four leaders (scarcely out of childhood themselves) hold down responsibilities more serious than that of doctor or teacher as they nurture and protect kids battling issues of self-harm, low esteem and mental unwellness. We see the day-to-day routines of group meetings, outdoor games and deep and meaningful conversations held behind open doorways.
Matter-of-fact Grace (an excellent Brie Larson from TV’s United States of Tara and myriad small-name film roles) walks the fine line between strict, maternal and caring, occasionally slipping across boundaries to empathise rather alarmingly with a new girl in her charge. Mason has his own motivations for being there, while newbie Nate puts his foot in his mouth as he comes to grips with being spat on or sworn at by the rage-possessed wounded.
This is the feature length rendition of writer-director Destin Cretton’s original 22-minute short film of the same name which went to the Sundance Film Festival in 2009. Based on his own experience working in a children’s foster home, Cretton has here fleshed out the story and characters (reusing one young actor who is superb as the deeply troubled Marcus), expertly crafting a tale which is at times devastating yet constantly enthralling.
Although shot naturalistically to convey its realism, occasionally the narrative contrivances may seem unnecessarily obvious. Regardless, it’s an often heartrending watch as layers of empathy and resonance are peeled away by characters, each nursing their own hurt. We see an exemplar of spoken word brilliance. A silent haircut which speaks a thousand words. Small actions cause huge repercussions yet, rather than being relentlessly depressing, the tone manages to be uplifting and touching.