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Short Term 12 (2013)

Drama Rated R

It sounds coarse to say that Short Term 12 uses real-world trauma as a convenience, but something like that is going on in this admittedly heartfelt and otherwise genuine little movie. Rooted in reality, and at its best an evocative collection of authentic moments, this nonetheless has the faint air of Hollywood.

Brie Larson stars as Grace, the twentysomething supervisor at a foster-care facility for at-risk teenagers. She’s both protective mother hen and cool older sister, yet also able to be the voice of authority when needed. Grace’s right-hand man – and her romantic partner at home – is Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), a former foster kid himself and now the facility’s fuzzy, bearded, big-brother figure.

I feel awful offering anything but praise in response to Short Term 12, so good and noble are its lead characters’ efforts. Grace and Mason have a ruthless sort of love for these kids – they care and they care and they care and they care, even after they’ve been sworn at and spit at and have had to hold one of them down while a violent tantrum passes.

The movie opens with one such episode, an ingeniously staged sequence in which Grace and Mason are giving a pep talk to Nate (Rami Malek), a new employee. They’re suddenly, jarringly interrupted by Sammy (Alex Calloway), an alarmingly skinny resident making one of his routine escape attempts. Among the other kids in the group home are Marcus (Keith Stanfield), a glowering presence with a gentle heart, and Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), a sullen newcomer whose terrible secrets particularly resonate with Grace’s own childhood.

I feel awful offering anything but praise, so good and noble are its lead characters’ efforts.

Yet for all the awfulness that skirts around the movie’s edges – at one point Marcus delivers a stirring rap about the abuse he suffered at the hands of his mother – Short Term 12 primarily operates as an achingly sincere form of wish fulfillment. Yes, this facility is supposed to be an oasis for these kids, but at times it’s as if the damage they’ve suffered has been too easily left outside of its doors. We hear about it, but by insisting on things like cheery group sing-alongs and impromptu birthday parties, the film doesn’t really let that damage linger. Short Term 12 nods to the past and then rushes to a better present; the movie doesn’t have much room for the hard, long work of healing.

I’m not questioning the picture’s representation of life in one of these facilities; I’ve never worked in such a place, as writer-director Destin Cretton has. His background is probably why so many of the details feel real, and why his camera is a patient, unobtrusive presence among the characters (he makes great use of the oft-underappreciated medium shot). Similarly, the performances – especially Larson’s tightly wound portrayal of Grace – have a raw resonance. Nevertheless, Short Term 12 is neater than any movie set in such a place probably should be.

If something smells false at all, it’s the structure. Once Cretton has his characters in place, their individual narratives begin to click together too perfectly and exactly when the story needs them. By the time a tragic event jump starts the climax, the movie has fully shifted into Hollywood mode, with conveniently arranged conflicts and hasty, if welcome, resolutions.

Even so, how much can you hold that against a picture this insistent on better lives for its many battered characters? Short Term 12 ends almost exactly as it began, with Grace, Mason and Nate in casual conversation, this time about a former resident whom Mason saw looking happy and healthy at a coffee shop. The movie has a similar vision for all of us, and there’s something undeniably admirable about such an irrepressible expression of hope.