Every now and then, a film comes along that disproves every stereotype of its genre. Destin Daniel Cretton’s Short Term 12 is centred on the lives of helpers at a foster home for disadvantaged teenagers. However, any preachy images this may conjure remain surprisingly absent throughout.
The film opens with pensive, understated cinematography and a toilet-humour anecdote among co-workers. The dialogue is natural to the point that watchers feel they are eavesdropping. However, with a wail of alarms as a wayward child attempts to run clear of the foster-home’s grounds, we are launched into an honest, unpredictable account of institutional life.
Grace (Brie Larson) and Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) are a young couple caught between the tension of their relationship and their fraught days working in the home. At the arrival of Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), a young girl moved perpetually between foster homes due to a history of dangerous behaviour, Grace is forced into difficult personal territory. As Jayden’s need for help becomes increasingly clear, Grace becomes embroiled in a world where justice and common sense are trumped by bureaucratic fostering systems. On the way, she has much to confront. How do you separate your past from your career? How do you keep from recognizing yourself in others?
Largely debut performances, the acting was unusually memorable. Larson is by turns resolute and vulnerable as Grace; Gallagher Jr. is charismatic and endearing; Dever appears wonderfully inscrutable as Jayden, showing flashes of a brilliant intellect and a precocious artistic creativity as the film wears on. Keith Stanfield’s plays the foster home’s oldest resident, preparing to leave custody as he approaches his eighteenth birthday. A quiet, despairing presence throughout the film, the scene in which he raps one of his own compositions caused a sort of frozen hush in the cinema. Background histories are quietly alluded to, and even minor characters appear to have an unspoken depth.
Artistically, the film is impressive. The cinematography takes on the quality of a visual diary as activities such as baking or drawing are documented with a meticulous sensitivity. Great use is made of silence, of empty rooms and toys cast aside; but also of the everyday bustle of the home’s residents, their morning routines, their quirks and habits. Scenes of group games or snatches of conversation have the spontaneous quality of documentary filming.
We are rarely made aware of the division between teenagers and adults. While issues of authority and responsibility could have been emphasized, what emerges most strikingly is a sense of equality. Not only do the adults resemble the teenagers in their struggles, but we get the sense of a deeper connection that brings the characters of Short Term 12 together, some human commonality that comes to the fore in hard situations. There is no middle-class-teacher-as-saviour subtext. Melodrama is generally avoided, and Cretton eschews catch-all resolutions in this unsentimental account.
Alicia Byrne Keane