Film Review: Short Term 12

In a moving drama that deftly mixes laughs and tears, Brie Larson leads a talented cast as a supervisor of a group home whose own past rivals that of her troubled teenage residents.

What is life like in a group home for teenagers? In Short Term 12, that life is a combination of humor and heartbreak. Moving and inspiring, the film oscillates between moments of hope and those when all seems lost. What’s refreshing about this drama is that it bows neither to the stereotype of a horrifying institution, à la One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, or a syrupy tale of a problem teen who undergoes a dramatic transformation. This is a world where the stakes are incredibly high for the kids, who are always in danger of falling off-track, yet to acknowledge what’s at stake would be a recipe for burnout. The solution? Gallows humor, first delivered in an opening monologue about a runaway and the worker who follows him while trying to ignore nature’s call. Writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton based the film on his own experiences working at a home for troubled teenagers, and the finished product has moments with such realistic texture that it’s fair to guess they may have actually happened.

The entry point into the facility, called Short Term 12, is a supervisor named Grace (Brie Larson). She draws pictures with a kid one moment, and restrains the same teen after an outburst in the next scene. She tells her kids to communicate while withholding her own past. Her shaggy-haired co-worker Mason (John Gallagher, Jr.) shares her empathetic touch with the residents. He also turns out to be her boyfriend. “We’re not therapists, and we’re not their parents,” they recite to each other. Their job is to keep the kids safe, but it’s also clear they deeply care, both in moments of discipline and when they can actually get them to reveal the depth of their hurt.

From the start, the movie sets up relatively modest expectations of change. The teens and staff can’t erase abuse, they can only cope with it better. With these realistic markers in place, the audience can revel in their small victories. There’s Marcus (Keith Stanfield), who also played a role in Cretton’s original short of the same name, which won the U.S. Jury Prize at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. His character is about to turn 18 and leave the institution, a moment of flux that’s profoundly frightening—and leads to acting out. Then there’s Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), a teen who lost her mom, self-hurts, and feels abandoned by her father. Marcus expresses his feelings through rap, and Jayden through drawings and stories. Their monologues when they open up to Grace and Mason are among the most moving in the film. These moments feel incredibly earned, and Cretton wisely lets them play out naturally, instead of punctuating them with a musical score or fancy camerawork. He seems to know most of the audience would already be in tears anyway.

Short Term 12 is so captivating, it’s easy to just be carried along as the plot unfolds, simply wondering after each scene, “What will happen next?” Even when characters have choices ahead—Grace, for example, is struggling with what to do about an unplanned pregnancy—what seems to matter is not their ultimate choice but how the character approaches it. Much of this feeling comes from Cretton’s script and direction, but equal credit is due to the actors who actually bring the story to life. These are the kind of roles actors dream of. They must make their characters feel real, both before and after the audience learns perception-changing details about their past. We leave the characters in Short Term 12 after they have made progress, but Cretton makes sure we understand the halting nature of their growth. When it comes to the film itself, however, this immersive, emotional drama is a completely unqualified success.