Cycle of Life: Short Term 12

FILM, In Cinemas
img_shortterm12Just once take the advice that you give your kids every fuckin’ five minutes and learn to talk about what’s going on inside your head.

Twenty-something Grace (an absorbing Brie Larson) is a trained-on-the-job ‘duty manager’ of the titular Short Term 12 facility: a state run group home for kids without steady family situations to support them. Along with a group of similarly untrained but committed young staff she endeavours to create a temporary ‘safe’ environment where the kids can experience stability and care before life whisks them along on their next step. Where Grace is all sober concern, compatriot long-time staffer Mason (a fine John Gallagher Jr. not reeking of The Newsroom histrionics) is more gregarious: a jokey, slightly embarrassing older brother type. These two anchor daily life at Short Term 12 while newbie Nate (Rami Malek) struggles to find his feet with the residents. On the resident side Marcus (Keith Stanfield) is coming to terms with facing life back at home again, and recent arrival Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) resists settling in figuring she won’t be around for long.

Short Term 12, in its constructed slice-of-life realism, encompasses the stories of individual staff and residents as well as the relationships both within and between each group. This makes for a very rich dramatic milieu held together by emotionally true performances despite feeling a little over-written and too neatly packaged. If a feeling of narrative contrivance rankles—the plot struggles to escape a convenient paint-by-numbers movement—the film’s myriad strengths more than compensate. Short Term 12 evinces a perfectly pitched emotional tone: the dysfunction and messiness of life to the fore coupled with real warmth and a low level optimism. This makes a refreshing change from the dim and dismal tone filmmakers often use to ‘provide realism’ in such broken life drama. Cretton and crew employ an unadorned visual context with fleshed out and well cast supporting characters, giving the sense of a truthfully inhabited world. Apropos to nothing, I also feel personally bound to mention that Short Term 12 exceeds quantity and quality expectations of everyday bicycling sequences to be found in a film![1]

The old adage “write about what you know” has paid off in spades for director Destin Cretton, whose 2008 Sundance Jury Award-winning short found new life and wider success as an expanded feature film in 2013 (this time round beginning with SXSW, Sundance having rejected the feature version). The director cites some personal resonance with the character of naïve yet well intentioned new guy Nate, accidentally stepping on toes as he learns the ropes in the group home setting. Cretton’s first job out of college was a two year stint working as a young staffer in a group home. Though his family background was stable, his observation is that many of his colleagues had troubling experiences in their lives and were drawn to working with kids in similar situations. So yeah, seems it’s not just an adage about writing; often—and not always consciously so—we end up living what we have known. Relationships and family structures, jobs and education, holidays and recreational activities: all these things get shaped to a large degree by what we have experienced growing up (you know, the whole ‘nature vs nurture’ idea), and the same is true of Cretton’s sharply drawn set of characters.

I get the feeling—from the trailer, a clip or two, and some commentary—that the original short (of the same name) has a more satisfyingly raw day-in-the-life structure but lacks some of the production polish and does not attain quite the quality of performance the feature boasts. Of the cast, only the relatively inexperienced Keith Stanfield retained his place (Mark becoming Marcus) as a long term home resident whose eighteenth birthday, and hence release back into the community, is imminent. The rest of the cast has been rejigged along with the story. Excepting, that is, a giant yellow, dog-shaped, Weeble-like, rubber stress-relief toy which also bridges the two iterations of Cretton’s story. Oddly, it’s not hard to see this ‘dog toy’ as a visual metaphor for Grace’s character. As a ‘calm down’ tool the benign-faced rubber whatsit is beaten, battered, thrown, and, though cast down, always springs back up again; benign-faced Grace both suffers batterings of her own and helps to diffuse the sufferings of those in her care.

Indeed, an investigation of the cyclic nature of life and the difficulty of making a break from well-worn paths upon which our feet have been set is central to both the short and feature length versions of Short Term 12. Cretton has succeeded in telling a poignant story in an accessible manner. His choice of Brie Larson to carry the primary dramatic burden has proven an astute piece of casting and will hopefully lead to more quality work for and from both of them. I hope the young director can develop his writing craft as he goes and learn when to loosen his narrative grip, because if he can do that and maintain this level of emotional resonance, we’re in for some excellent films to come.

Dir. Destin Cretton,
USA, 2013; 96 minutes
Featuring: Brie Larson, John Gallagher Jr., Kaitlyn Dever, Stephanie Beatriz, Rami Malek, Alex Calloway, Kevin Hernandez, Keith Stanfield, Frantz Turner, Melora Walters.


[1] A small visual celebration of the use of pedal power in the movies can be viewed here.

Filed under: FILM, In Cinemas

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Jacob Powell has been contributing to The Lumière Reader since 2005. He writes freelance on cinema and other topics both online and occasionally in print. He also works as an Auckland-based university librarian specialising in digital AV media and research collections.