Short Term 12
Brie Larson is an actress who has been bubbling up below the surface for a few years now since she burst on the scene as the daughter of Toni Collette in The United States of Tara in 2009. Since then, she’s taken supporting roles as the femme fatale-ish ex-girlfriend Envy Adams in Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, or the love interest Molly in 21 Jump Street, or Cassidy in The Spectacular Now. She’s difficult to deny in these roles, even in smaller moments like her guest turn on Community (in its otherwise disastrous fourth season), and it makes you want to see what she could do with a fully-fledged confident lead role in a film that relies entirely on her. Enter writer/director Destin Cretton, who taps Larson as the lead in Short Term 12, an expanded version of his 2008 short of the same name. Cretton appears to have seen the same in Brie Larson any of the rest of us have seen over the last three or four years, and puts the full weight of the film right on her back.
Short Term 12 is set within a foster care facility for at-risk teenagers. Larson plays Grace, the de facto leader of a group of twenty-somethings running the day-to-day operations of the facility, as they do what they can to give these troubled teens some sense of familiarity and home while having to micro-manage their every move to ensure their safety. Grace is joined by her live-in boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher Jr, of The Newsroom), as well as Jessica (Stephanie Beatriz, now best known for Brooklyn Nine-Nine) and newcomer Nate (Rami Malek, The Master) in their care of these troubled teens. The main force of the plot comes in the form of Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), the daughter of an influential friend of the director of the place, who is brought in temporarily before she is picked up by her father. Grace takes a shine to Jayden immediately, though she is reluctant to return the affection. There are additional subplots following other young men and women in the facility, particularly the stories of a sullen 17 year-old named Marcus (Keith Stanfield, who was also in the original short) soon to be jettisoned out into a cold and potentially hostile world without many prospects to rely on, and Sammy (Alex Calloway), a loner prone to theatrical attempts at escaping.
This is a film that is not particularly about its plot. It’s not aimless in its plotting like Inside Llewyn Davis or generally unconcerned with it like The Counselor, but the film is entirely enamored with its characters and their relationships more than anything else. Brie Larson is, of course, the main reason for this, as Cretton needs to do nothing more than simply park the camera in front of her magnetic face and watch her make Grace into a wholly formed human being on the screen. The gulf between what she’s doing as Grace and what we’ve seen from her previous performances is massive, but not in the way you would necessarily expect. It’s an expansion of range, not simply a honing of skill. Envy Adams was no less accomplished or confident a role as Grace is from the perspective of Larson’s acting, yet these are thoroughly and entirely different characters on wildly opposite ends of the spectrum of theatricality. Her work here is the unifying force, and one of the most surprisingly effective and affecting work of anyone on screen in 2013, woman or man. This is a performance on the level of Adele Exarchopoulos in Blue is the Warmest Color or Oscar Isaac in Inside Llewyn Davis. She’s that good.
This is not, of course, to say that the rest of the cast is bad or inferior. Far from it. The adults are strong, particularly John Gallagher Jr., who is the second lead and has the more to do than the rest of the cast. We don’t get as much of a sense of who he is until a wonderful scene late in the film that unlocks his motivations, but even when he mostly exists as a sort of rock for Grace, his kindness and warmth shines through. To a man (and woman), all of the younger actors are wonderful, especially Keith Stanfield’s Marcus, who brings a quiet desperation to his character that you don’t often see from inexperienced actors. The best and most important aspect the teenagers (and the actors bringing them to life) bring to the film is a constant sense of danger and unease. The audience is consistently reminded that these kids and their broken lives are hanging on the thinnest of threads, with danger and tragedy lurking around every corner. When you hear an alarm or some commotion off screen, the panic in the adults’ eyes as they rush to help, fearing the worst, is palpable, upsetting and authentic, and entirely grounds this world in the reality it needs to sell its central conceit.
It is a good thing that Larson and co. are so excellent in their roles, because a few foibles in the script could have done some damage to the suspension of disbelief under unsure hands. It is true (and other critics have rightfully pointed this out as a weakness) that portions of Cretton’s script tend toward the heavy-handed, and at times toward the cliché. Specifically, some decisions are made regarding the Grace character and her background that on face value seem a little too conveniently tailored to the plight of the Jayden character, which has the potential to upset the bond they feel by founding it on a combination of coincidence and contrivance. To me, these are of course valid concerns, but they did not reach a level that actually bothered me or took away from the power of the film in any way completely due to how good Brie Larson is, and how natural and true she makes every iota of her personality as Grace. It’s not contrived because Larson doesn’t make you believe it’s contrived through her assured and mature take on the character. To me, it’s the one potential weakness of the film, and while I can understand it being the sort of loose thread that when pulled unravels the entire object, I did not see the thread as loose.
Cretton shoots the proceedings in a sort of vaguely cinema verite/documentary style, heavy on the hand cam but not overly shaky in its execution. It’s just the sort of directing that gives you exactly what you need to see and have without asserting itself too much or overriding the work of the actors. It’s simply not needed. The resonance and the power of Short Term 12 comes from these actors, led by Larson’s astoundingly subtle performance. A must see for her alone, but you should be more than satisfied by the whole package.