In a summer of massive studio flops, it’s been an exceptionally great summer for individual voices behind some of the year’s best independent films. Here is yet another superb entry, this one from writer/director Destin Cretton who has adapted his short film from 2008 into this year’s Grand Jury and Audience Award winner at SXSW, “Short Term 12.” It’s a heartrending powerhouse, one of the most emotionally raw films you’re likely to see this year and an affirmation of Brie Larson (of “The Spectacular Now” and the upcoming “Don Jon”) as a great, young actress. Look out for her.
The gorgeous and elliptical film is a snapshot of a foster care center for youth at risk. Larson plays 20-something Grace who is among the supervising staff at the center. She is joined by her shaggy, caring boyfriend, Mason (John Gallagher Jr. of “The Newsroom”) and newcomer to the center, Nate (Rami Malek), who’s still learning the ropes. The film begins in their intimate circle, Mason telling a story, then stretches out into the lives of these staffers and the kids they look after, and then brings us right back to where we started with a much deeper and profound understanding.
The magic of Cretton’s film is the way it works as a slow burn through mini-climaxes and revelations, weaving a larger tapestry of sadness, angst and the beauty of the human condition. Never sensationalized and always naturalistic, the way scenes unfold is delicate, taking time to settle into this environment and these characters. It unassumingly burrows into our minds and hearts, so that by the end we have complete empathy.
The film focuses mostly on two foster kids, Jayden and Marcus, played respectively by Kaitlyn Dever and Keith Stanfield in a duo of fantastic performances that bring their pained, conflicted characters to life. Grace ends up identifying closely with Jayden and getting almost too involved in her situation at home with her abusive father; she sees Jayden as a younger, more fragile version of herself. You see, Grace and her boyfriend Mason are grown-ups of foster care. She, especially, is afraid of her own demons to the point where, after discovering her pregnancy, she can’t decide if she has the faith to keep the baby. Meanwhile, Mason is worried his love won’t ever be enough to save Grace.
Destin Cretton’s “Short Term 12” doesn’t take the usual routes to get into the head and heart of its audience; instead it surprises us with unexpected moments of poignancy and, even in the darkest moments, bursts of humor. And not every loose end gets tied up, nor does it deserve to be. We are peering in on messy lives, and it isn’t our job to watch them get cleaned up completely.