'Short Term 12' Review: Powerful, Unsentimental Look at Underprivileged Teens

There are a variety of fragile characters in the new film Short Term 12. There’s a withdrawn female teenager who wants to be left alone. There’s a kid who likes to run away from his caretakers. And there’s a violent teenager who hits other kids. These three all live together in a group home for underprivileged children. They each feature prominently in the drama but the real stars of this new feature aren’t the youngsters staying in the group house but the young people managing the facility. 


Brie Larson leads the cast as Grace, one of the supervisors in the group home. She is as conflicted and oftentimes more wounded than the students she supervises. But she’s much better at hiding her pain. Her boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) sees through the walls she holds up but knows that she won’t completely open up to him. Early on, Grace discovers that she’s pregnant and immediately thinks that abortion is her best option.

More than the other caretakers, she enjoys becoming close to the residents and eventually forms a strong and powerful connection with Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), a new short-term resident whose icy personality pushes people away. In the story, we also meet a variety of other young people suffering from personal issues and are introduced to Nate (Rami Malek), a new employee who works with Grace and Mason. Along with the audience, Nate is watching the inner-workings of this group home for the first time and experiencing all of the heartbreak, pain and laughter that accompanies this line of work.

Destin Cretton wrote and directed the new film, which presents its characters in a raw unsentimental fashion that is more customary in documentaries than in scripted dramas. Cretton’s script is powerful enough to look at the supervisors with the same distinct glare that it uses to view the young people inside the facility. We slowly but surely see why protecting and guiding these children is so important to the supervisors.

Their work isn’t a choice for them. It’s something they must do.

They look out for others because they know what it’s like to be protected from the harsh world or they understand what it’s like to be powerless when that protection is lacking.

Importantly, none of the children or their supervisors are presented as flawless individuals. Save for Nate, who only serves as an anchor for the story, the other characters are presented as three-dimensional figures dealing with large life issues. The pain of parental abuse. A lack of self-confidence. The desire to be alone when others can’t understand the pain you're dealing with. All of these issues are brought to a harsh and powerful light here. In one intense and powerfully-acted scene, all of these issues collide as one of the main characters recounts a fictional story that is both honest and heartbreaking in its depiction of abuse.

Short Term 12 is not a light movie but it is a positive one. At its end, we have seen the pain that these young people have experienced but we’ve also witness the hope that they can see once the tears have stopped. And that hope. That’s one of the most powerful reasons to see this passionate and powerful film.


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