Short Term 12 is a perfect case of something I always say: as a public, we need to pay more attention to documentaries. Director Destin Cretton spent a day in 2008 with a group of kids and their guardians at a facility called ‘Short Term 12’ and turned it into a short-subject doc. Now, he has adapted his experience into a narrative feature that is as sensitive to its real-life subjects as it is imaginative and free-flowing.
Brie Larson gives a monumental performance as Grace, a full-time counselor at said facility, where preteens and teens with troubled pasts basically wait for state employees to evaluate whether they’re ready to go back to their parents or if they’re better off under better care, waiting for adulthood. 17-year-old Marcus (Keith Stanfield, who was featured in Cretton’s documentary) clearly needs to wait. He’s got a lot of emotional issues that impede his ability to connect to anyone in a peaceful manner. Stanfield gives a scary good performance, clearly balancing his real experiences with what’s required for his character. There’s a great scene where we see an unedited original rap song that Stanfield wrote, with Mason (Grace’s on-again, off-again boyfriend, played by John Gallagher, Jr.) playing the bongos for his beat. The song helps us learn about Marcus and it also helps put us on the ground level with Grace and Mason, so that when we’re introduced to Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), a young punk princess with a history of parental abuse similar to Grace’s, we understand the struggle that all parties involved – adults and kids – go through in this movie. They all struggle with parental relationships, whether they be adopted, as in Mason’s case (we see a whole tree of adopted children in Mason’s family), or abusive, as in Grace’s. Parents become the main stumbling block in Grace and Mason’s relationship, which becomes the driving force of the film. Larson and Gallagher, Jr. have terrific chemistry and it’s almost unbearable to watch them go through these emotional hardships because we know they would make great parents.
Cretton does a fantastic job of putting us in this world and pulling a genuine emotional reaction from his audience. The technique here deserves some praise – his ’08 doc was the research needed to make a narrative film that is lasting, powerful, thought-provoking and incredibly respectful of its subjects.