“Remember: you’re not their parents, you’re not their therapist. You’re here to create a safe environment and that’s it.”
Twentysomething social worker Grace (Brie Larson) may be selling her profession short when she so bluntly runs through the responsibilities and limitations of care home staff to new guy Nate (Rami Malek). They may not have the authority of their older, more qualified colleagues, but the youngsters who run the Short Term 12 home do the important work. In fact, as in borne out throughout Destin Cretton’s festival favourite indie drama, by caring for these kids in an everyday manner, Grace and her coworkers are closer to their charges than any of their superiors.
Indeed, the relationship between Grace and her boss is not unlike the familiar frisson between renegade cops and by-the-book police sergeants, and there’s a faint air of crime fiction to Cretton’s script, which starts with a new assignment (a teenage girl who may be the victim of domestic abuse) and ends with Grace putting her job on the line in pursuit of justice. Along the way, Grace’s confident, professional demeanour is slowly unravelled by a mixture of long-suppressed memories and the looming responsibilities of imminent adulthood, providing young star Brie Larson with her first chance to really impress on the big screen after years of supporting roles in the likes of Don Jon, Scott Pilgrim vs The World and 21 Jump Street.
Developed from writer-director Cretton’s own 2008 short, which won the short filmmaking prize at Sundance, the feature length Short Term 12 is marked by a handheld, observational style that isn’t afraid to mix the twee with the traumatic. However, its 95 minutes are stuffed with emotional reveals, tender moments and disarming drama that at best is jarringly genuine, and at worst seems rather calculated and convenient, with the peaks and troughs a little too immaculately arranged to be convincing.
It may be true to Cretton’s experience (as he once worked in such a home) that situations could turn so drastically, or that a wry smile or juvenile anecdote could diffuse a standoff, but Short Term 12 seems to be in such an incredible hurry to tell you its bittersweet tale, and where the flow of the feature requires Grace’s personal journey to take precedence, some of the children’s stories are therefore sidelined. Perhaps a more appropriate canvas would have been a television series - a Long Term 12, if you will - that would allow us to connect with the cast just as Grace and her coworkers do with the children in their care.
Not only would it iron out the contrivances, but a more relaxed pace would simply give Cretton more time to paint his portrait of a broken, wounded America pieced together by surrogate families. In stark contrast to British films set in care homes (eg Samantha Morton’s directorial debut The Unloved), Short Term 12 rejects some of the grim tendencies of social realism by embracing the earnest, deeply romantic idealism found in indie flicks ranging from Half Nelson to Blue Valentine, where the ills of a decaying society contaminate the hopes and dreams of youth. Cretton probably overplays his hand when at one point a troubled young boy drapes himself in the American flag before attempting to escape the facility, but we get the picture: there’s dysfunction both at home and in the homeland, and it’s through the spirit of those such as Grace that a new family unit can be found.