Grace (Brie Larson) is a woman who doesn’t think she can take care of herself, so she’s dedicated her life to taking care of others. She, along with most of the characters in the film, has been abused as a child and faced psychological trauma that she may not always show. She’s caring for neglected children, ones entering a program that will prepare them for the world when they turn eighteen or when their parents have come around. Most of the kids are sexually or physically abused, or they’ve faced a traumatic loss of a loved one in their life. Grace, along with her boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), take care of these kids and make sure they don’t leave; if they do, they’re reminded, they can’t touch them outside of the gate or do anything to get them back. Mason starts off the film with a possibly exaggerated story on a kid he chased down once where he shit himself because he wasn’t able to go to the bathroom during the day. The film’s built upon these anecdotes that deftly mix in humor where most dramas would heighten their character’s problems.
Short Term 12 takes its time, though, demonstrating that a film can emotionally layer characters with singular, quick actions that most films still fail to deliver. It’s emotionally resonant, cutting to the core of what makes us human: more so than anything, we all want to be loved, and these children haven’t had that in their lives. They can be spiteful and unforgiving, but more so than any film I’ve seen it shows that we can feel that almost immediately. When a character gets mad at another for seemingly not understanding them, we realize the flaw in our own judgments; the assumption that everyone is of a sound mind and hasn’t faced emotional trauma is foolish. The way the film navigates that path, delving into characters like Marcus who’ve faced an abusive mother and hates himself, rings sincere and deeply moving.
Brie Larson’s lead performance is one of intensely built feeling, a character who smiles often but always hides the fact that she’s uncomfortable in her own skin. We learn that she was abused by her father at a young age and forced to take showers with him, that her mother died, that she cut herself almost to the point of suicide, and that she’s been pregnant once before. Larson has a way she layers this, but that’s also a testament to Cretton’s brilliant screenplay. He’s crafted a film that layers these characters through countless scenes, never having big reveals for characters or monologues that tell all; these characters give speeches, sure, and they provide us with intimate details through long discussions. But not everything complex about these characters comes forth at first. It’s a slow, sometimes painfully intimate study of people who want love more than anything else. Short Term 12 demands to be seen; what a beautiful, heartfelt feature.
Grade: ★★★★★ (out of 5)