“Short Term 12” begins with pure volatility, which is present in every situation the plot creates. In the opening scene, a group of young people stand around, telling funny stories. The building behind them seems like an unimposing office complex. The aura of peace suddenly shatters as a shirtless young boy sprints out a door, an alarm blaring behind him. The group of adults scrambles to catch up with the cursing, flailing child. After they pull him down as gently as they can, the kid is slowly comforted and the forgotten story is quietly finished. The scene leaves a lasting, tense feeling; like a major disaster was just avoided. The protagonist, Grace, acts as though this isn’t unusual. A feeling that someone is about to snap is present throughout the film, adding true suspense to a heartbreaking film.
Grace (Brie Larson) is a facilitator at Short Term 12, a halfway house for children and teenagers who are deemed mentally unstable. Along with her boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) and her other coworkers, she works to better the lives of the wards and give them a chance to merge into society upon becoming adults. As Grace helps newcomer Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) assimilate into the group and prepares 18 year old Marcus (Keith Stanfield) to enter adulthood, Grace juggles the trials of the group along with her own demons.
Director Destin Daniel Cretton’s “Short Term 12” focuses specifically on youth. Everyone has a snapping point and the film shows the cause and the trigger of the emotional outbursts. Watching the struggles and the tantrums of these troubled kids, the audience sees exactly what trained professionals see: indicators of a cry for help. But the adults are just as unstable and explosive and the dialogue and acting keeps the audience invested in their recovery.
The film shines because of how it treats its characters. All the children and the adults are so likably written that it’s impossible not to feel heartbroken over their flaws and failures. The script highlights bad things about the kids staying at Short Term 12, but also highlights how they’re trying to regain control over their damaged lives. They aren’t described as losing the fight, though. They have each other to lean on. The movie is fueled by their emotion as they attempt to make sense of their broken world.
Larson is astounding as a loving caregiver haunted by her past, skillfully emitting the frustration and sadness that is present in all of us. Gallagher Jr. plays the role of a man hiding pain with jokes well. He is able to channel bitter humor and sarcasm while also showing his confusion in understanding his relationship with Grace. Dever and Stanfield are great in their own arcs, portraying a new generation of the disadvantaged with a feeling of hopelessness. The weakest link is Rami Malek as the newbie supervisor. His acting is fine, but his character is one-note and hardly developed.
"Short Term 12" succeeds because it understands humans. A person never suffers abuse or loss as a child only to bounce back to normal, and the film knows how difficult it is to help others crawl out of their own personal darkness. At the end, most of the kids are still in "Short Term 12", waiting to see exactly how kind the future is to them, still fighting for a chance that at first wasn’t available. The movie succeeds in showing how it’s very possible to recover and to reach back up after a startling fall.