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AUSTIN — A genuinely moving look at life in a group foster home that avoids most of the usual routes into viewers’ hearts, Destin Daniel Cretton’s Short Term 12 behaves like an ensemble piece even as it develops a character whose struggles will eventually define the film. Brie Larson (appearing in four films at SXSW this year) gives a breakthrough performance that should open doors to bigger dramas, but the effortlessly balanced film never feels like a showcase, and the actress doesn’t treat it like one. Theatrical appeal is strong for a wholly engaging film that isn’t the downer it might sound like on paper.
Larson plays Grace, one of a handful of young adults staffing a live-in waystation for troubled kids. (Kids are meant to stay for under a year on the way to something better, we’re told, but the authorities sometimes forget about them for much longer.) Fellow counselor Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), an obviously good guy, is her adoring boyfriend, a fact they try to hide from staff and residents; though he doesn’t know it yet, his girlfriend is pregnant.
Grace and her co-workers aren’t supposed to be therapists — mental health professionals are assigned to each resident — but simply to create a safe environment and keep their wards from hurting themselves and others. But we see how their concern and patience elicits revelations even on-site therapists aren’t privy to: Marcus (Keith Stanfield) lets Mason hear a rap he’s penned about his mother, who forced him to sell drugs for her; Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), a new admission who’s reluctant to open up, has written and illustrated a heartbreaking children’s story that’s clearly an allegory of her own life.
In each of those scenes, both the scripted material and the young actor’s delivery produce the kind of hold-your-breath moment more ostentatiously serious films shoot for often and achieve rarely. Here, Brett Pawlak’s handheld camerawork and Cretton’s unsentimental direction have a frankness that acknowledges the dramatic extremes in these lives without needing to parade it before the audience. Cathartic moments come, but not where they’re expected.
Slowly we come to understand how much Grace and Mason have in common with the kids they’re protecting. Grace reveals herself — not strategically, but as if it were the only thing she could do — while trying to help Jayden accept this latest of many institutional homes. For his part, Mason gives every sign of having had an ideal youth until we see him celebrating the anniversary of his own foster parents. As the couple copes with a crisis of their own while juggling life-or-death problems at work, Short Term 12 doesn’t have to explain the ironies at play in its title: Repairing a wounded childhood is never a short-term project, even when everything goes as it should.
Production Companies: Animal Kingdom, Traction Media
Cast: Brie Larson, John Gallagher Jr., Kaitlyn Dever, Rami Malek, Keith Stanfield, Kevin Hernandez, Melora Walters, Stephanie Beatriz, Lydia Du Veaux, Alex Calloway
Director-Screenwriter: Destin Daniel Cretton
Producers: Asher Goldstein, Maren Olson, Joshua Astrachan, Ron Najor
Executive producers: Frederick W. Green, Douglas Stone, David Kaplan
Director of photography: Brett Pawlak
Production designer: Rachel Myers
Music: Joel P. West
Costume designer: Mirren Gordon-Crozier, Joy Cretton
Editor: Nat Sanders
Sales: Traction Media, Cinetic
No rating, 96 minutes
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