Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Short Term 12

I had to go down to Menlo Park so I stopped by the Landmark Guild last month to see Short Term 12.

Short Term 12 starring Brie Larson, Kaitlyn Dever, John Gallagher Jr. & Keith Stanfield; directed by Destin Cretton; (2013) - Official Website

I just saw Brie Larson play a high school senior in The Spectacular Now so it was a little surprising to see her cast as a twentysomething supervising counselor to a group of troubled teenagers.  I looked her up and Brie Larson turned 24 earlier this month.  It's interesting that she appeared convincing as a teenager in The Spectacular Now but appeared older in her next filmShort Term 12.

As I mentioned, Short Term 12 is set in a group home for troubled teenagers.  I thought the kids were troubled foster kids but one of the main characters is placed in the home at the request of her father.  Larson is Grace, the supervisor of the counselors who interact with the kids in a non-medical setting.  There are psychiatrists and such but Grace and her team keep weapons and drugs out of the facility and mediate disputes among the kids.  She is dating and living with Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), another of the counselors.

Grace seems quite responsible for her age but the events of the film will send her into a tailspin.  First, she finds out she is pregnant.  Although an unwanted pregnancy can be difficult for anyone, Grace reacts by pushing Mason away and scheduling an abortion.  Second, the new girl Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) reminds Grace quite a bit of her younger self.  Grace was a troubled teenager and lived in a group home like the one she now supervises.  In trying to help Jayden cope with her emotional issues, Grace sees another similarity.  Jayden exhibits signs of abuse from her father. Grace should recognize the signs because her father is in prison for abusing her and her testimony put him there.  That leads to the third stressful issue in Grace's life.  Her father is scheduled to be paroled and she's not anxious to see him.

As Grace navigates these troubled waters, Jayden is sinking into her own crisis pit.  Jayden runs away from home and Grace follows her to her house.  Her father isn't home but Jayden's behavior convinces Grace that Jayden is the victim of abuse from her father.  Not having actionable proof, Grace angrily lashes out at her boss by smashing his lamp.  This scene is pivotal in that it gives a glimpse of the type of person Grace was in her younger days and also make clear that despite her position and responsibilities, Grace isn't that far removed from the teenagers she supervises.

When Jayden's father arrives at the facility to take  his daughter home for the weekend, Grace is outraged and mortified.  Grace rushes to Jayden's house with vague initial intentions.  Seemingly poised to commit violence, it is Jayden who calms Grace down.  Instead of assault or murder, they settle for vandalism.  The action cements the bond between Jayden & Grace.  Later, Jayden has enough strength to report her father's abuse.

The crux of the movie is the relationship between the two young women.  Both Larson & Dever are outstanding in their roles.  Grace begins the film as a self-assured young woman and becomes nearly unhinged by the end.  Jayden shows up with a confident facade and although it shows some cracks, by the end we see she is truly resilient although her real problems may be delayed like Grace.

A parallel subplot involves Mason and another foster kid named Marcus (Keith Stanfield).  Marcus is about to turn 18 and "age out" of the facility.  His trepidation about life after the home is understandable and is testimony to the effectiveness of the counselors.  However, he begins to act out in dangerous ways.  Marcus is the opposite of Jayden in some ways.  Seemingly self-assured, Marcus is more fragile than he looks.

The film is book-ended by two long soliloquies by Gallagher as Mason relates stories about former foster kids.  The tales are so engaging and realistic that I can still remember them vividly despite there being no visual depiction of the scenes described.  Short Term 12 is based on director and screenwriter Destin Cretton's time working at a group home for at-risk teenagers in San Diego.  Short Term 12 is a very powerful and moving film that feels, at times, like you are a fly on the wall observing real troubled youths.  I felt a lot of empathy for the characters which is the ultimate compliment from me about a film.

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