Destin Cretton’s feature film debut, Short Term 12, is set in a foster care facility, where a foursome of 20-somethings work alongside the troubled teens that fall out of tumultuous homes and into their care. The film opens on the first day of a new employee, Nate (Rami Malek). “We’re not counselors,” Grace (Brie Larson), who leads the little team, tells him. “We are here to create a safe environment.” The statement reads like a thematic summary. The question Short Term 12 goes on to explore is what happens when creating a safe environment means breaking down the wall between professional and personal roles?
One of Short Term 12’s best qualities is the way it collects its group of well-realized characters around a central dramatic momentum. Each of these kids in the care of the home has a story, and even characters who play minor roles, like poor Sammy (Alex Calloway), a boy paralyzed in trauma since sister died, are allowed space to develop a depth of individual pathos. Another significant character is Marcus (Keith Stanfield), a 17-year-old African American who is about to be let out of foster care, but whose impending freedom prompts the surfacing of deeply buried anxieties about his childhood and relationship to his mother.
The central story, though, involves Grace and Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), her boyfriend and co-worker, as well as Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever). Grace begins to suspect that Jayden is being abused by her father, but that only prompts the surfacing of Grace’s pain from an abusive youth. What uncoils is a serpentine twist of emotions and suspicions, of lost souls longing for love they just can’t bring themselves to allow in. Cretton’s main achievement with Short Term 12 is her casting. Brie Larson, in particular, makes a statement here about the depth of her talent, while each actor excels within their place in the script. The result is a quiet, simply rendered film that belies the barrage of life it contains. And while the film’s sincere desire to find hope within the context of suffering can sometimes produce bursts of sweetness, Short Term 12‘s joys are hard won and satisfying.