This review was originally published on March 14, 2013 as part of Film.com's coverage of SXSW 2013.
A modest drama in the vein of the “trying to reach these keeeds!” type of picture that “South Park” once famously and rightfully mocked, “Short Term 12” is far better than its premise might have you believe, a tense and tender look at the deep-seated dysfunction of foster home teens and the adults they will become.
We join the staff of Short Term 12 on the first day of work for new hire Nate (Rami Malek). He’s nervous, but Grace (Brie Larson) and Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) try to put him at ease as he contends with the troubled residents, their various tendencies towards acting out and the established procedures in place (for instance, should any kid make a break for it, he or she is legally untouchable once they reach the gate). It’s an open secret that Grace and Mason are an item off the clock, but the arrival of Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) to the home reignites traumas previously suppressed by Grace and threatens to undermine their fledgling relationship in the process.
“It’s not your job to interpret tears,” Grace’s supervisor warns her, but writer-director Destin Cretton (“I Am Not a Hipster”) knows how to communicate his characters’ emotional turmoil without making them time-bombs first and foremost. Small admissions tend to carry the greatest weight, whether written as a rap or a parable, while violent behavior explodes suddenly but understandably for those who find it easier to scream “I hate you!” than to say “I love you.”
The problem children aren’t all sinners, and the problem-solvers aren’t always saints. We watch and wait for the cliched thing to happen, for the natural levity of situations to fall by the wayside in favor of noble hysterics, and yet the film maintains an even keel. The interactions between the staff and the foster kids are presented matter-of-factly, easily endearing each character to the audience, and that careful tone makes Cretton’s slightly schematic dovetailing of distresses easier to bear. Only one potential eruption on Grace’s part nearly swerves “Term” towards unwelcome melodrama, and even it is swiftly defused with humor and heart.
Of course, it would be for naught if the younger actors weren’t credibly brittle and bruised -- which they all are across the board -- and the same could be said for the adult performances. Malek may serve as the story’s entry point, and to see his trial by fire is vital to understanding how one ill-placed word can sabotage even the best of intentions, but this is really Grace and Mason’s story. It’s nice to see Gallagher shed the neuroses that have defined his work on HBO’s “The Newsroom” and treat even the most stubborn wards with something resembling respect, and Grace with a deeper compassion, but there’s no ignoring the fact that this is Larson’s time to shine. Lately defined by her spot-on comedic chops (“21 Jump Street,” the upcoming “Don Jon”), she conveys a vital empathy right from the start and proceeds to incorporate an increasing emotional burden without grandstanding or otherwise upsetting the film’s intimate scale.
Coming from the young actress, this performance is something of a quiet revelation, and in turn, the same could be said of the film itself.
SCORE: 8.7 / 10