In this 2013 film debut by Destin Cretton, we see Grace (Brie Larson) as a counselor in a group home for “at-risk” youth,–Short Term 12— a facility for “transitioning” out adolescents into the world. Grace is a beautiful, extremely vulnerable case worker who relates to everyone in the Short Term 12 residence. She struggles in a precarious balancing act between being a surrogate parent/friend/disciplinarian on the one hand and being a “professional” without emotional attachment to the young residents. We do not know Grace’s secret, but as viewers, we know she has personal demons.
Mason (poignantly played by John Gallagher, Jr. from television’s “Newsroom”) is a fellow counselor and product of the foster care system himself. Passionately in love with Grace, he eventually peels away at Grace’s defenses. Jayden, a young newcomer to Short Term 12, who has suffered and has also built almost insurmountable defenses to protect herself, is assigned to Short Term 12. Grace, who involuntarily identifies with Jaden, slowly chips away at the emotional distance between them as as Mason does with Grace. The major plot is now set.
Marcus, one of the oldest residents at Short Term 12, is about to be emancipated, but dreads life outside the group home. Talented and well-liked, Marcus is –as are all the young wards of the state—deeply wounded, dumped there as garbage by family members. The overriding theme in “Short Term 12” is the damage that dysfunctional families inflict on teenagers, jeopardizing their chances for future stability.
A riveting bird’s-eye view of a group home for troubled teenagers, “Short Term 12” has the feel of a documentary, a series of scenes of adolescents both lost and scrambling to make sense of the world they’ve been thrown out of and then back into. Larson gives a luminous breakthrough performance that foreshadows her next major role in “Room”, for which she has been nominated this year for Best Actress by the Academy Awards. (She won this year’s Golden Globe in that category). Just as Jennifer Lawrence astounded in her breakthrough role in “A Winter’s Bone”, this young actress will undoubtedly also amaze us in future films.
Lending subtlety and layers to a very flawed character, Brie Larson evokes, for the viewer, both sympathy and frustration with her choices. If the editing and tightening of the narrative had been more accomplished, I would consider “Short Term 12” a masterpiece. However, filmed in only 20 days by a newly-minted film graduate, it nonetheless is an engrossing study of young adolescents and adults who deserve much more from society and family. A wonderful human drama.