Review: Brie Larson and John Gallagher Jr shine in emotionally powerful ‘Short Term 12’

“Short Term 12” has played at SXSW, the Seattle Film Festival, and the Los Angeles Film Festival so far this year, and you’ll get a chance to see it soon thanks to Cinedigm, who picked it up for distribution. I think they’ve got a very special movie on their hands, and the performances that are the beating heart of the film are revelatory, real announcements regarding actors I hope to see much more from in years to come.

Brie Larson has done very good work in several films so far, and in general, I’m impressed by the way she disappears into the films. She never seems to be the same person twice. I seriously haven’t recognized her in about three films until I saw her name in the credits. But until “Short Term 12,” I didn’t really have any indication of how amazing she is. And she is. Amazing. I am fascinated by actors who have the ability to just lay themselves emotionally bare, raw and electric and wide open to get hurt again and again, and Larson’s work here is all about pain and the way her character Grace protects it. The way she carries it around taking power from it but always struggling to keep it pushed down. She focuses on others so she never has to think about herself. She’s good at reaching out to people and helping them. She just can’t get out of her own way in real life. Grace is good for everyone but Grace.

John Gallagher Jr. plays Mason, a guy who works at Short Term 12 with Grace, and he’s the poor bastard who loves Grace. He’s the guy who has to take all of her fear and her nighttime terror and he bears the brunt of it. When she freaks out and hurts the people close to her… that’s him. He’s the guy who loves her enough to stay and take the hit. And the way Mason loves her, it’s so right. It’s so good for both of them. He knows that he can’t fix her. All he can do is love her and hope she wants to fix herself. Again… that’s the whole point of the job these people do, and while she’s the one who is great at it during the day, he’s the one who really puts in into practice in their private lives.

Short Term 12 is the name given to a ward at a facility for at-risk youth. These are kids who have been taken out of their homes for some reason, and who have to be in a safe place. Grace and Mason aren’t doctors. They aren’t there to fix the kids. They are there to give them something solid. Somewhere safe. I love that this isn’t about some miracle cure, some doctor who comes in and magically fixes the lives of everybody. We’ve seen that version of the movie, and instead, this is about the people who just keep the peace. They just have this one small moment of influence in the lives of the kids who go through, and they make of it what they can.

Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) is a new kid on the ward, and her arrival seems to flip some switch inside of Grace. As she gets to know Jayden, she sees subtle things about her, things that trigger a panic in Grace. She recognizes something in the girl that provokes her in a very specific and private way, and watching Grace start to fall apart as she struggles to play the role she’s been asked to play, the temporary caretaker, even as she aches to reach out and save this girl.

Destin Cretton wrote and directed the film, and he based it in part on some time spent working in a very similar situation. This isn’t being sold as “based on a true story,” though, nor should it be. Cretton’s obviously crafted a work of fiction using his experience as a way into the world. It is acutely well-observed, and it helps that he cast an amazing group of young actors to play the kids who are under Grace and Mason’s care. Rami Malek plays Nate, the new guy working at Short Term 12, and at first, it looks like the movie is going to be about him adjusting to this new job. He’s really not the focus, though. This is Grace’s story first, then the story of Short Term 12, and there are a number of emotional sucker-punches built into the film.

Brett Pawlak photographed the film, and he’s been working with Cretton since they did the short film version of this story in 2008. I haven’t seen the short, and I haven’t seen “I Am Not A Hipster,” another feature by Cretton. I have seen his work on the “Halo: Forward Unto Dawn” series and “H+,” another web series, though, and Pawlak is a guy who can make a little bit of money look like a lot. “Short Term 12” probably wasn’t an expensive movie, but it’s very specific, and it’s got a lovely burnished quality to it. There’s a scene where Mason takes Grace to a party in honor Mason’s “parents,” and we realize that Mason also has a history that basically makes him one of these at-risk kids at some point, and the entire sequence just glows with the sort of very real emotion that Gallagher shows giving a toast. Pawlak’s work here reminds me of the great work that Tim Orr and David Gordon Green did in some of their first few films. It’s very real, but it’s gorgeous. It’s vivid, and when emotions start to get out of control, the language of the film also starts to fray at times. It is always real, but just brighter or darker at times, more attuned to the mood of the moment.

Cinedigm is putting the film out on August 23, just as the summer is about to break into fall, and I hope the film finds its audience. I think it hits hard, but I think it does it to see how Grace and Mason are going to handle it. I am not a person who thinks it’s essential that I care about any characters in a film, particularly, but in this case, I absolutely cared. Of course I did. That’s what Cretton’s really after here, this portrait of these people who could so easily have been beaten down by life. Cretton’s interested in resilience, and he believes that Grace and Mason can make it through. Maybe. I would not be surprised to see this become a film that grows over time, as people catch up with it and take a chance on it, and as Brie Larson and John Gallagher Jr. continue to do what I assume will be very good work in the future in increasingly bigger films, maybe more people will come back to this one. If you’re at all interested, I encourage you to track it down in August.