In “Short Term 12,” Grace (Brie Larson) appears to have everything under control in her job as a floor supervisor at a foster care facility. At the beginning when she’s showing the new floor supervisor Nate (Rami Malek) the ropes she speaks like a seasoned veteran who’s seen it all. When one of the foster kids makes a mad dash for the facility gates, screaming at the top of his lungs and wearing nothing but an American flag for a cape and underwear Grace, along with the other floor supervisors, springs into action and the event is treated as business as usual. The day-to-day life at the foster care facility (known as Short Term 12) is a series of up and down moments; one minute it will be calm and fun, the next a fight will break out, or someone will have a meltdown. Writer-director Destin Cretton establishes this day-to-day bustle of the foster care facility in an intimate and natural way and even though the movie specifically focuses on two of the foster kids, we get a taste of all the kids and how they interact with each another.
Like any other professional in a high stress job, Grace knows exactly how to deal with the kids. On the one hand she’s firm and authoritative when enforcing the ground rules (no sharp objects, drugs, etc.) or diffusing one of those serious, high stress moments (such as when one of the kids hits another with a bat). On the other hand she’s also extremely caring and sensitive. Only in her early twenties, Grace is not much older than a lot of the foster kids, so she can still approach them at eye level. She knows when to give the children their space, as well as when to go and talk to them. And when she does talk to them it’s done in a casual, non-oppressive way, often times just sitting on their bed with them, waiting for the right moment to begin the conversation. This is more than just a job for Grace, it’s a lifestyle. She’s patient, determined and above all passionate, ready to defend and help these kids until the very end.
Of course, the reason why Grace is so good at her job is because she herself was a victim of child abuse by her father and was foster child. This means that, while she may be able to handle the lives of children at Short Term 12 with ease, she doesn’t quite know how to handle her own life. At the beginning when she finds out she’s pregnant she immediately makes an appointment to get an abortion; she deals with multiple needy children on a daily basis but isn’t confident enough in herself to be a mother. She tells the foster children to open up and talk about their feelings, but she herself hardly ever opens up and talks about her own troubles, even to her boyfriend and fellow Short Term 12 floor supervisor Mason (John Gallagher Jr.).
Larson does a lot of fantastic body acting to convey these insecurities and weaknesses, hunching over or tucking herself into a ball, literally closing herself in, or picking at her finger when she’s especially anxious. Working at Short Term 12 serves as an escape for her; she can relate to what the kids are going through but it keeps her busy enough so she doesn’t have to think about her own damaged life. At only twenty three, Larson gives one of the most genuine, multilayered performances of the year and hopefully (much like Shailene Woodley in “The Spectacular Now” earlier this year) this will be the performance that puts her on everyone’s radar. She’s the center of “Short Term 12.”
It also helps that the rest of the movie is pretty great too. The story and the subject matter aren’t wholly original and the movie doesn’t sound that interesting on paper, but it’s handled in a very straightforward and non-manipulative way. The picture isn’t overly sentimental but it also isn’t a complete downer either. Cretton’s script seamlessly blends both drama and comedy. Even in the most dramatic or intense situations he’s able to find humor, and vice versa. Some people might be put off by the film’s sudden ups and downs, but life itself is full of sudden ups and downs.
And again, Cretton isn’t trying overly hard to make you feel sad or happy, using manipulative filmmaking techniques like an overwhelming score. “Short Term 12” is done without any melodrama and its main focus is developing its characters, making them as authentic as possible so as to make those up and down situations believable. Cretton also manages to end the film on a bittersweet, “life will go on” note. He gives us a feeling of hope but at the same time not everything is resolved smoothly. There will be just as many down moments in these characters’ lives as there are happy ones. Just like in real life. Aside from the sheer level of authenticity and realism that Cretton achieves, the main reason to seek out “Short Term 12” is Larson. Without her powerful, understated performance the film wouldn’t have been nearly as good.