This is a serious drama with warm, sometimes funny edges, made with an understated sense of craft.
Short Term 12 takes place at a foster-care facility for at-risk teenagers. Destin Daniel Cretton's movie never mentions a geographical location, and that feels right: many of the kids are just a bad day or two from running away or finding themselves back in abusive households. At Short Term 12, they find a temporary refuge, a combination school, camp, and community.
The organizing force for this refuge is Grace (Brie Larson). She serves as the facility's supervisor, though not a licensed therapist or a caseworker, as her boss reminds her, having thrown herself into her job in part as a means to cope with her own history of abuse. Cretton's screenplay doesn't offer this idea about Grace as exposition, but more as deep, unspecific background, part of a pattern in the film. It takes a few scenes, for example, to indicate that Grace has been dating her coworker Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) seriously and long enough to cohabitate with him.
This pattern is initiated as Short Term 12 begins, that is, through the eyes of Nate (Rami Malek), a new employee at the facility. A student looking for "real-life experience," Nate is a convenient way for Cretton to introduce the basic rules and regulations, but still, the movie doesn't adopt his point of view. It focuses mostly on Grace, whenever possible, picking up her hints of inner turmoil. As it turns out, the audience knows about as much as Mason: he wants desperately for Grace to let him into her head; she resists, repeatedly, and presses on with her work.
Through Grace, the movie introduces a few case studies. Marcus (Keith Stanfield) has been staying with them for several years, and has to leave now that he's turning 18; Jaden (Kaitlyn Dever) has just arrived, standoffish and withdrawn, anticipating weekend visits with her father. At first, these situations sound familiar, but whenever the movie looks like it's about to indulge troubled teenager stereotypes -- Jaden as the sardonic goth-ish cutter, for example, or Marcus cast as the black kid who expresses his anger in rap lyrics -- Cretton fills in particulars with disarming, open-hearted sensitivity. The relationships among the kids are shaped by moments of sweetness, but also plenty of prickly tension.
Such nuance keeps Short Term 12 from turning into a kitchen-sink slog. It's a serious drama with warm, sometimes funny edges, made with an understated sense of craft. Cretton and his cinematographer Brett Pawlak shoot lots of close-ups, sometimes a manipulative fallback for filmmakers early in their careers. But Cretton uses the nearness, as well as shallow focus that blurs out surroundings, thoughtfully, to draw attention to faces, crucial in a movie so much about people unable or refusing to verbalize their fears and desires. In busy scenes at the facility, the camera often reveals the looks exchanged, the silent shorthand among the staff members, and sometimes between staff and residents. The film also captures more private emotions: late in the movie, when Grace heads out to find Jaden, embarked on her own furious, frustrated mission, she looks almost possessed, beyond our comprehension.
Larson's performance is a revelation. After strong supporting roles (in The Spectacular Now, 21 Jump Street, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), here she shows impressive range, exposing the pure rage that fuels Grace's need to save Jaden, her confident and rational purpose as a supervisor, and her understated good humor with coworkers and charges. While other players are certainly memorable -- especially Dever as the stubborn, heartbreaking Jaden -- the movie's success depends on Larson's embodiment of Grace's resilience and empathy.
Short Term 12 also establishes an effective empathy for its many subjects, leaving abusers and villains mostly off screen in order to keep focused on survivors. In this way, it quietly imposes a narrative economy. We never see the kids before or after their stays at the facility, and only see action outside its grounds to the extent that work, such as it is, follows Grace and Mason home. Their previous lives have brought them to Short Term 12 and their lives now are affected by each day's events and interactions. The movie's conclusion is more open-ended than settled, but, in its way, just about perfect, at once limited and cyclical.