The finest and most wrenching American (fictional) movie so far this year is Destin Cretton’s Short Term 12, which also features a breakout performance by the actress Brie Larson. She plays Grace, a counselor at a supposedly short-term resident foster facility for abused and/or very unstable kids. Every day, Grace rides to work on a bicycle, and the moment she enters the squat facility, she begins a series of fraught negotiations with her charges — some of whom will occasionally make a break for the fences. The aim is to talk through their traumas and teach them to handle their wayward emotions — and tongues. When they swear and mouth off, she says things like, “Your attitude is not helping either one of us.” For some reason, that reaches them.
I know, it sounds like one of those earnest inspirational good-hygiene movies. On one level, it is. But the exchanges are electric. Many films from kids’ perspectives make fun of therapy-speak. Short Term 12 shows how a good therapist, through trial and error, can evolve to the point where what she or he says is instinctive rather than robotic. Grace has enough empathy to transform therapy-speak into something at very least appropriate and at very best profound. Maybe she has too much empathy. When she bikes home to her boyfriend — a fellow counselor named Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) — she regresses. She becomes a victim of her own abuse again, a child not so different from the kids in Short Term 12. I didn’t recognize Larson from her role as the protagonist’s savvy ex-girlfriend in The Spectacular Now — which I’d seen a mere two days earlier. Her transparency makes you forget that she has ever been or done anything else onscreen. In all ways, she’s touched by grace.
It’s no surprise that Cretton worked for two years in a center like Short Term 12. He has written an alter-ego newbie named Nate (Rami Malek), and the role is a device: Mason and Grace show him (and through him, us) the ropes. The problem is that Cretton seems to have an excess of humility. Nate is glib and thick and too shallow for the movie. The characterization can’t be accurate. You know from how Cretton directs these actors that he’s brimming with insights — and love.
The young actors are extraordinary. Keith Stanfield plays Marcus, a 17-year-old African American about to “graduate” from Short Term 12. Marcus is too complicated to summarize. He keeps his eyes down but has a keen is awareness of slights. And he has a nasty temper that’s apt to turn inward. The character gels when he performs for Mason an original rap called “So You Know What It’s Like,” a series of accusations against the mother he calls a whore. The song builds to a stinging refrain: He wants her to know he lives “a life not knowing what a normal life’s like.” Kaitlyn Dever plays Jayden, a punky upper-middle-class girl with a bland, dismissive affect; a penetrating artistic talent; and a rage that’s demonic in its intensity. It hurts to hear her viciously malign Mason and Grace as they hold her down and wait for the spasm to pass. Grace — also an artist — has an almost unhealthy transference with Jayden, whose home life hits too close to home. But then, Grace is not supposed to be a cool Freudian. Her vigilantism is improbable but cathartic — and thrilling.
We don’t see the abusers. We don’t see the evil. We see the effects, the consequences of evil on children now making that agonizing transition from scared and raw to over-defended and … well, “crazy,” as society defines it. This is another movie in which the camera is hand-held, but for once the cinematography (by Brett Pawlek) doesn’t feel affected. The teens are discomfitingly authentic, and Pawlek goes with their jitters.
Cretton has a clear design in Short Term 12. Grace and Mason calm these kids down enough to make contact and we think, That’s it, they’re "cured.” But then there’ll be another explosion of anger — and the process will begin all over again. It’s one step forward, one fall back. There’s no “cure” — only, one hopes, the planting of seeds that might one day help the residents of Short Term 12 develop emotional autonomy. Not that Grace has that. Mason (a gentle, self-effacing performance by Gallagher) has to handle her with extreme delicacy — and often no comprehension of what she’s going through.
The only misstep — apart from the unappealing title — is a denouement that’s way, way too upbeat. But you can forgive Cretton for wanting to end on a harmonious note. The score by Joel P. West is so gentle it’s as if the composer doesn’t want to bruise the characters. It’s the kind of music that sweetens what we see without falsifying it, and it cuts to the movie’s humanistic core. Short Term 12 leaves you shaken but not bereft. Short-term love, it suggests, can be everlasting.