That movies like “Short Term 12” are rare flowers is testament to just how difficult the art of filmmaking is. That it’s an indie is testament to just how messed up the studio system is.
As the major studios burned through millions of dollars of explosions, high-priced actors and endless marketing, nothing they made this year has moved me as much as this micro-budget drama.
Director Destin Cretton makes his feature debut and deftly avoids the pitfalls that can quickly turn a weighty story into melodrama. And his film is anchored by a superlative performance from young Brie Larson, who also shows ample talent and restraint.
Grace (Larson) is a 20-something worker at a foster care unit. It’s a tough job, but she’s a tough person, the rare blend of head and heart that allows a person to care for young children and teens coming from the most heartbreaking situations imaginable.
Also on the staff is Grace’s boyfriend, Mason (John Gallagher Jr.). He’s a gentle and kind man, both in the foster care facility and in their home life, where Grace’s vulnerability occasionally ends abruptly.
Among the unit’s tenants are Marcus (Keith Stanfield), an abused boy approaching his 18th birthday and release from the facility who finds raw release in hip-hop lyrics, and Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), a sullen new girl whose defiant attitude hides deep scars. Grace sees herself in Jayden, and this common ground becomes an important breakthrough for both of them.
Through amazingly adept and efficient storytelling, Cretton gently but swiftly pulls you into this world without turning things into a Lifetime movie tearjerker. It can warm your heart one minute, rip it out the next and never make it feel like it’s being manipulative.
Brie Larson is simply a revelation, creating a Grace that is a complex web. This film was destined to be as good as this lead performance. And both the film and the performance are among the year’s best — as is the supporting cast.
In both quiet revelations and emotional explosions, “Short Term 12” is as powerful and effective at moving an audience as any film you’ll see. This is how you make films. I want to see more of them.