Troubled Youth: Short Term 12

08/14/2013 4:00 AM |

Short Term 12
Directed by Destin Cretton

This contemporary Social Problem Picture, guaranteed to tug at the heartstrings, opens with a group of battle-tested guidance counselors recounting a tale in which one of them fearfully shat himself when faced with the possibility of getting stomped by a teenager who busted out of the foster care home where they’re employed. For the remainder of the film, writer-director Cretton locates pathos somewhere a little further away from such humor—for better or worse. The result is a handsomely crafted, modestly scaled melodrama that occasionally feels overly calculated in its attempts to elicit sympathy but is more often than not too earnest to dismiss.

Grace (Brie Larson), a senior staff member at the aforementioned foster care home, lives with her boyfriend/coworker, the shaggy and easygoing Mason (John Gallagher, Jr.). An especially troubled resident, a budding rapper named Marcus (Keith Stanfield), is about to turn 18 (which means the State will no longer pay for his room and board), and Grace and Mason are worried that the majorly glum MC won’t be able to hack it on the outside. Meanwhile, a self-abusive girl (Kaitlyn Dever) who seems to have been sexually abused arrives at the home and instantly triggers some discomforting déja vu for Grace, who then delves into her own traumatic past while clashing with the home’s administrative powers-that-be and with her anxieties about getting hitched and having babies. The proceedings are suffused with equal parts weight and levity, although the plot’s twists and conclusions are rarely surprising.

Short Term 12 inserts itself into a tradition of filmmaking that deals with the plight of troubled youths living in clinical environments. It never approaches the affective intensity of Allan King’s children’s-psychiatric-hospital-set cinema-verité-as-horror-film Warrendale, nor does it seem to emanate from a mind with as strong a grip on the inherent expressivity of mental unrest as with Cassavetes’s A Child is Waiting. This isn’t to suggest that Short Term 12 fails within the parameters of what it tries to do. On the contrary: it is rich enough with both compassion and technical competence to impress viewers, even if it doesn’t push the envelope. 

Opens August 23 at the Sunshine