Inevitably, no matter who you are, you’re always going to miss out on the odd film here and there. And so my main New Year’s Resolution for 2014 wasn’t about simply watching more films, but to view more independent films. Short Term 12 was released last year and evidently was the one that, very briefly, got away. Here’s why you shouldn’t let it evade you for any longer…
Based on the director’s 20-minute short of the same name, the plot of Short Term 12 gives us Brie Larson (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World’s Envy Adams) and John Gallagher Jr. – best known for his work in Aaron Sorkin’s excellent The Newsroom – as a couple of workers in a facility which attends to the needs of troubled adolescents. Little more is stated about the specific remit of the institution itself, instead leaving it to the audience to decide. Clearly though, it acts as a halfway house – a refuge of sorts – for those unable to live at home, until they turn 18 and enter the world of adulthood.
As well as working together, Grace (Larson) and Mason (Gallagher) are also in a relationship and living with one another. The film is an examination of this difficult, pressured environment as a whole, including the effect it has on their personal and professional lives. It does this by looking at Grace’s issues specifically – she’s informed of her pregnancy early on in the narrative – and also via the introduction of a new staff member at Short Term 12, Nate.
The use of Nate as a plot device could have been that and little more, but instead his character is featured in a smart, resourceful manner. Rather than use his new surroundings as our own and document his ascendency into comfortableness, the story instead is focused around only his first week – and what appears to be a typical one in the life of the staff and kids.
His hesitancy around them contrasted with the ease at which the central couple operate is an important dynamic underlining not only their capabilities, but also reminds us that even these two seemingly perfect-for-the-role adults had to start on this difficult road somewhere, and could have so easily and justifiably quit in times gone by.
Despite being highlighted everywhere, it’s important to note that Brie Larson is very, very good. She manages to convey the strength of character that shines through in the presence of the teenagers, and yet we’re also invited in to witness the difficulties and demons of her personal life through the writing, direction and her terrific, true performance. John Gallagher Jr.’s role should neither be understated: he is reminiscent of a younger Paul Rudd here, and we’ll be very lucky if he grows into one.
The performances all round and really strong which is no mean feat considering the ages of those on display. The film completely depends on this authenticity of character and location, and it’s a testament to those on show that it is in fact never in question. To have so many young actors involved in a film that examines feelings, emotions and past issues – a potentially sentimental outfit – that always refrains from this easier route is a testament to its tone and the talent involved. Whilst there are dramatics on show, it’s a necessary component in order to convey the depths of their troublesome existences.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about it is such a tone. It often flits from something serious to quite uplifting – and back again – in a matter of moments. This is immediately established in the opening scene where, amongst other things, we learn that moments of chaos are accepted and expected. They’re routine. Similarly, later on in the narrative we witness a moving moment where a new resident is touched by the birthday cards given by other kids, before she too attempts to flee in the very next instance.
Despite its general feeling of upbeat melancholia – a kind of perseverance in the face of adversity, specifically shown through Grace’s actions – these examples demonstrate the fractured, chaotic nature of the various personalities and their complex lives. Whilst this lends itself to an almost The Class-like comparison – particularly in the lively camerawork – Grace and Mason are allowed an increasing amount of backstory as the story develops.
The film starts to focus on the impact that this place has on their own characters, particularly in light of the fact of their own troubled upbringings (which we learn about meaningfully). Mason doesn’t get as much backstory exploration as Grace, but the significant scene of thanks to his foster parents is emotional enough to carry him through the rest of the journey in our minds and hearts. The question is whether Grace will be there at the end of the road too.
The only flaws in the film are very minor ones, such as some clichés in the writing, although this is not unexpected given the lack of experience of the writer-director (Destin Cretton). It does however refrain from attempting to provide simple answers, and neither does it comment on or judge the procedures involved (aside from a scene that looks at the potentially obstructiveness of bureaucracy). Instead it rightly sticks with what it knows and simply shows us the characters for what they are, as well as what they could be.
There are a couple of sequences which really stand-out, namely the rap by Marcus (and the accompanying cinematography) which is a really upsetting and unsettling moment, and the story of the octopus by Jayden which is an equally beautiful but tortuous allegory of her own particular exploitation. These sort of scenes alongside sparse music used to good effect and a polished edit with an appropriate ending demonstrates the capabilities of this emerging writer-director.
Ultimately, then, the film is a very accomplished piece of work by all involved who come together to create a moving and enlightening experience. It’s affecting, well-made and an all-round delight that results in Short Term 12 being one of the must-see indie releases over the past few years.
Short Term 12 is released on DVD on Monday 10th March.