The little gem "Short Term 12" won the Grand Jury Prize at South by Southwest this year with a refreshingly human-scale story of hope and kindness where heavy doses are needed most.
Writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton gets terrific performances from Brie Larson as Grace and John Gallagher Jr. as Mason, a 20-something couple who work as supervisors at a home for at-risk kids, some of them wards of the state, all battling untenable situations at home. Grace, a fierce and compassionate advocate for her charges, has buried her own troubles deep in her psyche and in the arms of sweet-natured, adoring Mason. Her distress begins to bubble to the surface with the arrival of troubled Jaden (Kaitlyn Dever), who acts tough and cuts herself to express her emotions.
3 stars = Good
Brie Larson, John Gallagher Jr.
R for language and brief sexuality.
Grace recognizes in Jaden the same acting out that marked her own difficult teen years, and she reaches out to the younger girl even as she's dealing with her own issues. She's pregnant, and although she is confident in Mason's love and commitment, secrets from the past haunt her every move.
Most of the characters are suffering some sort of post-traumatic stress from abuse in "Short Term 12," the name of the facility where kids are supposed to stay no longer that a year, although some have been there more than three. Long-term resident Marcus, 18, and getting ready to go out on his own, is played with heartbreaking complexity by Keith Stanfield, who also was in the film short that Mr. Cretton developed into this feature-length movie.
It is to Ms. Larson's considerable credit that her performance remains naturalistic throughout, even as work and personal traumas mount in a coincidence of timing. Mr. Gallagher's goofy charm is a tailor-made role for "The Newsroom" actor.
At 96 minutes, "Short Term 12" packs in a lot of points of view. It opens with the arrival of naive volunteer Nate (Rami Malek), who immediately distances himself from the residents by opening with, "I've always wanted to work with underprivileged children." It seems impossible that four 20-somethings -- Grace, Mason, Nate and Jessica (Stephanie Beatriz) -- could handle the potential runaways and suicidal kids in their care, but they command respect with strength, compassion and humor, and when was the last time we saw that in a film about teens and tweens relating to those in authority?
"Short Term 12" wraps up a little too neatly considering some of the messy lives viewers come to care about. Had this been a television pilot about a group setting for kids and the good people who have their backs, the storylines and performances would be compelling reasons for a full-season pick-up.
"Short Term 12" opens at SouthSide Works Cinema today.
Sharon Eberson; email@example.com or 412-263-1960.