Short Term 12

Teens in a group home get guidance from a young social worker dealing with her own family issues in Short Term 12
GOOD GRACE: Group home supervisor Grace (Brie Larson) talks it out with her charge Marcus (Keith Stanfield).

Brie Larson is the most exciting thing about Short Term 12, and it's a high quality, honestly touching film as it stands. We don't see the dark-eyed Larson in full face much for the first two thirds of the film; she acts in profile, or with her hair eclipsing one side of her face.

Larson has the ability to turn down the candlepower, to look ordinary. A really serious actor has to show conviction in himself. But the stars-to-be are the ones who can show that kind of conviction when they're doing something terribly wrong.

Larson was the genial ex in The Spectacular Now, who had dumped the hero for reasons we didn't understand at first and later understood quite well. Here, she's the aptly named Grace, a social worker: the uncannily serene main woman at a Southern California home for kids. It's a kind of halfway house between juvenile hall and the parents who lost or gave up custody.

Somewhere during the development of the film, it must have been decided to make Grace something like the lead in a Kathryn Bigelow film. She even picks up and racks a gun in the sense that she's armed with a super-soaker to blast the kids that won't get out of bed on time.

We follow Grace, looking over her shoulder, watching her compassionate yet efficient handling of the daily problems around her. And we see the gradual revelation of what she has been shutting down inside herself.

The expression "shutting down" could be used literally. Grace is considering an abortion. She's learned she's been impregnated by her live-in and co-worker Mason (a hairy, self-deprecating, motherly goof played by John Gallagher Jr).

That's when the barely adolescent Jayden turns up at the home. She's played by the soon to be famous Kaitlyn Dever, one of the movie's three standouts. It surprises Grace, just as it surprises us, to learn how much the social worker has in common with this wry, troubled kid. Jayden's problems precipitate the crisis Grace has been smothering in herself.

Director Destin Cretton worked in just such a home for a couple of years, and the details are all believable—the incident, for example, when the too well-dressed, condescending Nate (Rami Malek) makes an ass out of himself by declaring "I always wanted to work with underprivileged kids." The sense of shame is palpable in the confessions drawn out through art therapy: through a tragic children's story Jayden draws, as bitter as wormwood and absolutely free of schmaltz. Young Marcus (the amazing Keith Stanfield), the unit's short timer, stops this show with a blistering poem about the way his crack-prostitute mother treated him.

Short Term 12 finishes with a happy ending. Some will feel they're owed such an ending, just hearing the outline of this film. I could have used something more open-ended. The film doesn't always work—some lover's talk over the stove at Grace and Mason's house is fairly stiff. The live-ins in Short Term 12 are all children who had things done to them. I knew a few foster children growing up—good-hearted, witty, extremely charismatic kids—but a couple of them were serious hellions. They lashed out first. Except for a pretty good joke about Jayden wanting to rebel by putting pictures of penises on her wall, we don't learn what happens when these kids try to express their sexuality. I'm not saying I wanted it depicted. I'm saying I wanted to see what happens when they tried to act it out.

You see, the trick in Short Term 12 is that we're on the side of the people who run this panopticon, understanding the necessity of their rules, the no-closed-doors policy, the constant searchings of the rooms for contraband. It's probably the first film since One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest that has been on the side of the flawed institution. When Grace tells Jayden, "Your attitude is not helping either one of us," and one agrees it's true, this sympathy she creates with the powers that be must, ultimately, be due to the sheer power of the actress saying the line.

Short Term 12

96 MIN; R

Find Movie Theaters & Showtimes

Zip Code or City:   Radius: Theaters: