Short Term 12

Fri, Dec 6 – Thu, Dec 12
Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton
Metro Cinema at the Garneau

The film opens and closes with scenes in which the staff members of a group home stand outside their place of work, smoking, swapping stories about their more memorable interactions with the “at-risk” kids in their care, most of them only a handful of years younger than they. One story begins as scatological comedy and, we’ll later learn, ends in tragedy; another is touching, even hopeful. Both stories come to an abrupt end when Sammy (Alex Calloway), a reedy, inward, pre-pubescent redhead given to fits, makes a run for the property boundaries, beyond which the staffers are not allowed to touch the kids. Sammy seems to make these breaks not with the intention of fleeing the facility, but rather, of getting grappled and ultimately held by the only people around who can give him something like love.

These are clearly routines, both the sharing of war stories and the chasing of Sammy. They give the impression that writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton’s feature debut might be episodic in nature, a study of a milieu, a group (home) portrait. Yet this tough, sensitive film gradually reveals itself to have a well drawn, conventional dramatic trajectory, one story that can speak for many, a story about breaking cycles of abuse, not through one individual bravely confronting a painful past, but through the collective efforts of people united in a struggle for self-betterment at a point in life when a little guidance can make the difference between chaos and misery and a future worth working toward. Though most of these kids may instinctively turn inward to deal with traumas they cannot make sense of, Short Term 12 exudes a belief that there is strength in numbers.

Among the group home’s more senior staff members is Grace (Brie Larson), whose calm, youthful prettiness belies a fraught, closely guarded inner life. Near the film’s beginning she learns that she’s pregnant and books an abortion without hesitation—and without telling the prospective father, Mason (John Gallagher Jr), her shaggy, amiable colleague and adoring not-quite boyfriend. Grace has scars, both inside and out, and has trained herself well to cover them up, though the arrival of Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), a newbie at the home, seems to strike a nerve within her, to possess some experiences unnervingly close in nature to those which brought Grace to this place and this vocation.

Short Term 12 was shot in what might be thought of as the American indie in-house style: controlled handheld camera, pseudo-natural light, a score filled with unassuming gestures made on acoustic guitar and piano. Only a trio of slow-motion sequences break from Cretton’s otherwise straightforward approach, which serves the material perfectly well. More importantly, this approach allows the performances to dominate, and those of Larson and Dever are especially effective. Both women deftly convey the vestiges of emotional devastation without resorting to needlessly flamboyant displays of those emotions. The very moving second half shows how each of these women learns to bear some of the burden of the other. It’s a testament to interdependence, and to the wisdom of holding back on directorial style or attention-getting acting in favour of those deeper feelings that are better felt than shown.

 

 

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