Arriving in UK cinemas with very little hype aside from a few US indie awards, SHORT TERM 12 managed nonetheless to make a lasting impression that saw it end up on many ‘Best of 2013’ lists come the end of the year, including mine.
On the face of it, the set-up – an inspirational, caring youth worker is forced to examine her own problems when a new arrival stirs memories from the past – could have become predictable or sentimental, but instead strong writing and terrific ensemble performances result in an emotionally honest and assured feature debut from Destin Cretton.
Set in a foster-care facility for at-risk teenagers, the film opens with a group of 20-something counsellors sharing an anecdote with newcomer Nate. The tone is relaxed, the story hilarious –then suddenly they have to spring into action when one of the teens attempts to escape and they need to calm him down.
That ability to delicately handle abrupt shifts in tone – from happy to sad, comic to tragic – is important not only for the counsellors, but also for writer-director Cretton.
The naturalistic fly-on-the-wall cinematography helps create a documentary feel to the early proceedings as we are introduced to some of the residents in the home: people like Marcus (Stanfield), about to leave the facility and facing an uncertain future as he turns 18, and Jayden (Dever), a young girl with an angry demeanour who dresses entirely in black.
The performances by Stanfield and Dever are very impressive. When Jayden reads counsellor Grace (Larson) her self-penned story The Shark and the Octopus, it is one of the most moving scenes in the film, and a major turning point for both characters.
Grace starts the film by telling newcomer Nate: “We are not their parents or their therapists. We’re just here to create a safe environment.” She is a person who likes to keep a degree of separation, both from those in her care and also to an extent from her boyfriend/co-worker Mason (Gallagher). Jayden’s arrival and the discovery of the roots of her pain force Grace to confront unwelcome memories of her own, memories that she has been unwilling to talk or even think about for many years.
Brie Larson’s turn as Grace is one of the breakout performances of 2013. Gradually peeling away the layers to get to the truth, Larson never resorts to the showy histrionics that some other actors might have used. Instead she keeps everything internal and reserved, so that when the truth is finally revealed, her sadness feels affectingly authentic.
So if, like Grace, audiences are willing to take a risk and open themselves up to the world of Short Term 12, they will find a rare gem of a movie with more truthfulness and heart than any other film of recent years.
SHORT TERM 12 screens at Picturehouse Cinemas on Tuesday 14 January.