Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Review: "Short Term 12"

Grace gives good advice but doesn't take it. As the senior staffer at a foster care facility for troubled teens, she tells a new counselor on his first day that the job isn't to be their therapist or their friend, but simply keep them safe. Nonetheless, she finds herself getting increasingly engrossed in their problems, to the point the strife reverberates against her own past filled with pain.

It's a brave, unadorned and gutsy performance by Brie Larson, best known for roles in teen and/or comedy films. This dark, brooding but enthralling drama should be a game-changer for her.

Writer/director Destin Cretton settles us easily into the daily workings of Short Term 12, housed in a drab facility hidden away in a corner of suburbia. The rules are simple: while the teens are inside the property, their lives are more or less controlled by the staff. Once they get past the gate, though, all bets are off. Runners happen often enough the counselors trade funny stories about them.

Grace rules this environment through sheer force of will, getting boys a foot taller than her to knuckle under at the threat of a "level drop." Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) is her wingman, goofy and sensitive and, we soon learn, her surreptitious sweetie. They're both lost kids who were found, and want other youngsters to have the same chance.

Cretton's story is cyclical and sporadic, much like life at the center. The movie's attention wanders from this kid to that, and eventually onto Grace's own inner turmoil.

The film's strong point is the bond that exists between these teens, even when they're occasionally at each others' throats. They're linked by the idea that nobody's problems are insurmountable, since every person is screwed up in their own way.

Two of the foster kids stand out. Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) is the newest arrival, a referral from a friend of the facility director. She's jaded, cut off and too smart to fall for the normal tricks. She's unusual among the group in that she lives part-time with her father, who put her there after being unable to handle her destructive behavior.

Slowly, methodically, Grace worms her way into Jayden's good graces. They bond over their love of sketching ... and their horrible expression of self-hatred.

Most affecting is Marcus, the oldest of the group. Foster kids are only supposed to be there less than a year, but he's been around over three and is about to receive a mandatory boot upon turning 18. He's sullen and borderline aggressive, but also harbors a contemplative, poetic side.

Marcus keeps talking about wanting to shave his head for his birthday; Grace and company nod quizzically, not understanding the meaningful insistence behind this odd request. When they finally honor it, it opens up an emotional catharsis that just sweeps you away. It's Keith Stanfield's first feature film role, and he packs a punch.

The movie's not perfect. Cretton's sense of timing is occasionally off, as some events bring a sense of urgency that just melts away. Nate (Rami Malek), the new counselor who at first acts as the eyes and ears of the audience, sort of gets misplaced about halfway through. I also wanted more time alone with Grace and Mason; their romance feels more like a marker than something that breathes.

Still, "Short Term 12" is a powerful and genuine look at young, shattered lives and the painstaking process of piecing them back together again.

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