Short Term 12 derives its name from the place of business where the characters work. Short Term 12 is a halfway house of sorts for juvenile delinquents that are assigned there while the courts and families figure out what to do with them. Three months is the average stay, but some of the kids live there for years, waiting to turn eighteen, where they are released upon the world and have to find a way to fend for themselves. Writer/direction Destin Daniel Cretton adapts his own short film of the same name and follows the staff and residents of Short Term 12 in this emotionally draining movie.
Short Term 12 is bookended with two stories, both told by Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) with great relish. The first describes an instance where Mason defecated in his pants in front of one of the kids and the second one is about one of the kids and his success post his stay at Short Term 12. These two stories show the success of Short Term 12, as it’s focus moves from the staff to the residents. We begins by watching the staff deal with the residents and their own problems, but as the movie progresses, we realize that they may be beyond help. They’re not, but they are at an age where starting again and forgiveness is much more difficult to come by. The salvation of these people, and indeed all people, lies with the children. Life may have dealt them a bum hand, but they have the ability to rise above it and change the situation.
The girl in charge of Short Term 12 is Grace, played by the incredible Brie Larson. Larson has played bit parts in many TV shows and movies, and continues to do so, but this will be her breakout role. She is captivating, beautiful, and sincere. Grace comes with her own baggage (she was abused as a child) that allows her to empathize in ways with the kids that others couldn’t. It also hinders her from being able to see beyond the past and the pain. Her co-worker and boyfriend is Mason, and he is about as down-to-Earth as you can get. Mason works with these kids because he has a great sense of humor and a giant heart. He takes care of Grace with the same care that he takes care of the children. Watching him, you get the sense that if there was one Mason for every child that was damaged by someone or something, the world would be an okay place. There isn’t, Mason is the anomaly. The movie shows us this beautifully with the third staff member, Nate (Rami Malek). Nate is the new guy at Short Term 12, and I get the impression that he has had trouble in his past, but we never learn it. Look at his face when a kid freaks out and the shit hits the fan: terror, fear, pain. Look at Mason’s face: calm, cool, and collected. He even cracks a joke or two. Whatever Mason has, Nate doesn’t. Mason is the best in us, and Nate is the reality.
The old saying goes that if you think you have problems, sit in a room and listen to other people tell you their problems. After that, you will beg for yours back. Short Term 12 is that adage made cinema. What each of these kids is going through is not at all outside the realm of reality. Life is far from fair, and for some, it is difficult and hard. For others, it can be downright agony. Of course, they are all children, they did not ask for any of this, but it has become their cross to bear. If you seek an example of this, I offer you Marcus (incredibly performed by Keith Stanfield). Marcus lacks a significant amount of love, but somehow, someway, he is going to make it. Halfway through the movie, Marcus is given an opportunity to express himself and his pain. He can only do this in a rap that he has written while Mason attempts to keep a beat on a drum. Marcus raps in one long, jaw-dropping close-up that slowly zooms in closer and closer. The longer it goes, the more your eyes well with tears and the longer you hold your breath. Can an entire year worth of movies be summed up with a single shot? If so, this might be the one.
Short Term 12 manipulates you emotionally. Life has a habit of doing that too. It takes you on not just one or two, but multiple roller coasters rides. This is not an easy sit, but it is not excruciating either, the laughs are just as potent as the tears. The performances are stellar, but it is the work of Cretton that guides Short Term 12 with a steady hand. Cretton embraces emotion and by doing so, fills his characters with love. Moments of melodrama between Grace and Mason come off just as genuine as scenes of real life tragedy. Some movies put you through the wringer and leave you cold and empty at the end, you’ve got nothing left to give. Short Term 12 manages to find one last high note to go out on. You’re not quite sure how they did it, but you walk out of the theater with a smile on your face and a feeling that everyone is going to be okay. That’s not an easy thing to do. Short Term 12 is one of the best movies of the year. To miss it would be a crime.