“Look into my eyes so you know what it’s like to live a life not knowing what a normal life’s like.” Those harrowing words came from the rap lyrics that Marcus (played by Keith Stanfield) delivers in one of the most powerful scenes in the film. Sure it was laced with coarse language, but the raw emotion from the song about parental abuse and his estrangement from his family was like a big punch to the gut. The film is uplifting yet heartbreaking and it knows how to grip so tightly in our hearts and never let go. Short Term 12 delivers an emotional powerhouse through superb direction, touching script and brilliant performances from the actors involved, in particularly Brie Larson.
The film Short Term 12, written and directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, is based on his award winning 2009 short film of the same name stars Brie Larson as Grace. On the surface, she is a strict, no-nonsense caretaker for a large group of foster kids but deep down inside, she has some life issues of her own, which are revealed later on in the movie. Along with her boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher Jr), newbie worker Nate (Rami Malek) and Jessica (Stephanie Beatriz), they look after the safety and wellbeing of a group of foster kids in a group home. Among the kids is Marcus (Keith Stanfield), who is about the turn 18 and he is obliged to leave the home and fend for himself in a world that has shunned him in the first place. He is a victim of parental abuse and is afraid to leave the comfort of Short Term 12 where he has spent a few years living in. Later on, new resident Jayden (Katilyn Dever) arrives and threatens to blow Grace’s world out the window. Jayden comes from a terrible family situation, which she attempts to hide through self-harm, verbal jabs and gothic makeup. Grace is not fooled by Jayden’s act as she sees herself through the teenager’s eyes. Jayden’s situation throws Grace into a bit of a loop as it forces Grace to confront her past and deal with demons of her own.
From the synopsis of the film, it is easy to think that this could be a ridiculously schmaltzy affair. The film could have easily descended into a sloppy mess that would start off the waterworks in our tear ducts, but thankfully it steered clear of that direction. Short Term 12 is a force from top to bottom and it’s very clear why it swept the Grand Jury prize and Audience Awards at this year’s South by Southwest Festival. The incredible performances, the sharp writing and the beautiful direction have crafted a very special movie that touches the softest spot in our hearts.
In general, I am not a huge fan of the shaky cam technique, but it works quite well for this film. There were no big fancy shots, but the length of the shots and the close-ups were done spectacularly, allowing us to develop some sort of intimacy with the film’s story.
The tonal shifts in Short Term 12 have been handled quite carefully. The film can swiftly change from a radically funny moment to dead-pan serious without turning into a jarring mess. The comedic moments came out naturally through normal actions and conversations. It was not thrown in as a distraction from the pain and suffering that the characters go through, and that was the reason why it fit so seamlessly. Throughout the movie, you can’t help but laugh with the characters, cry with them, smile during the good moments and cringe during the bad. Never would you stop for a moment to think why you were laughing one moment and crying in another because the moments in the film feel so genuine and natural. It is so raw and engaging that leaves a deep impression even after the credits starts rolling.
While the technical aspects of the film were one of the key successes in the film, the other major component is the phenomenal performances from the actors involved. Brie Larson has done a fair share of supporting work in the past. In this film, she got the opportunity to take the lead role and her talent truly shines as she carried this movie from start to finish. The way she makes her character appear calm and collected while carrying a hint of a broken soul is phenomenal. Often we find it easier to give people advice rather than following it ourselves. The way Larson’s character Grace maintains a cool composure while showing cracks of vulnerability allows us to truly relate to the experience and tugs at our heartstrings. Despite the motherly nature of Grace and her good advice, she is still as scared and hurt as those she is caring for. Some wounds never heal and you can see Grace’s troubled past seep through subtly. Through the small moments, the silences and hollow look in her eyes, we share the pain the she is experiencing. It is indeed a brilliant yet heartbreaking performance.
Larson’s performance was not the only highlight among the actors. John Gallagher Jr.’s role as Mason is a nice balance to Grace’s cold demeanour. He is a joyful, supportive chatterbox that brings a smile to everyone despite his own past struggles. The way he tells his stories make you believe that he did experience it even though his character is known to make things sound a bit larger than life. Meanwhile, Kaitlyn Dever and Keith Stanfield delivered very strong performances as well. Both of them were a part of the most memorable moments in the film that almost brought me to tears. They took control of the scenes and made it their own. It was truly devastating to listen to Jayden tell the story about the octopus and the shark and to listen to Marcus rap about his childhood abuse and how he had to deal drugs for his mom. Both characters were very unpredictable, making the audience fear for their wellbeing but also fear about what they are going to do next.
Often times we struggle to open our hearts and say what we are thinking or say how we feel. The best way to do it is to disguise it through art. Using art to tell a story and to express feelings can give us that sense of release and perhaps heal us from whatever struggles we have deep down inside. Despite the nature of the topic in Short Term 12, the film is very uplifting. Seeing how love can triumph over all and seeing characters successfully face their demons is very inspiring. Sure in real life, people can ultimately give into despair and crumble under the pressures of the world, but what makes this movie work so well is that the success from the characters were not simply handed to them. They cried, they struggled and they suffered. The triumphs over their struggles are rightfully earned. No one ever said life would be easy; therefore we can all take a page from the message behind the movie and inspire ourselves to tackle through our struggles, no matter how difficult it may be.