People, this is how you do it. Short Term 12 is the first feature-length project by writer/director Destin Cretton done on, I’m guessing, a shoestring budget with two locations and a hand-held camera or two, using a few lesser known young actors (though I wouldn’t be surprised if those actors soaked up most of the budget) and a basic plotline revolving around a few people.
Even so, it felt like a real movie, moreso than The Internship.
The premise is that Mason has come to work at Short Term 12, a temporary holding facility for kids who might end up adopted or going back to their parents or caretakers, or might end up staying there for a while. The heart-and-soul of ST12 is Grace, who’s been around long enough to be able to control the often rowdy kids and teens.
Mason and Grace are also involved. Also, they’ve both had different experiences with the foster care system, with caretakers, and so on. This difference in experience gives them sometimes wildly different reactions to romance, sex, and the possibility of long-term relationships.
An axiom of moviemaking is “show, don’t tell”. (Also used in writing, speechifying, and what-not.) While a generally sound principle, it’s not always true. For example, I guarantee that the new Secret Life of Walter Mitty will suck relative to the old, with CGI filling in for Danny Kaye’s “ta-pocketa"s. We’ve seen a lot of variation on "tell, don’t show” this year that have been very effective, such as in the documentaries The Act of Killing and The Missing Picture, about the Indonesian and Cambodian slaughters, respectively.
Sometimes, it’s just too much to see the horrible.
And if those films are about horrible acts on a grand scale, this one is about the little horrors, the hells created by people for their children, which in some ways are even less confrontable, as they are exclusive to children and happening to our children in our cities, every day.
So, at first, we see the kids, and there’s an almost juvie hall feel, as if these are bad kids sent to this place in lieu of prison, except that security isn’t that tight and they’re not allowed to drag escaped kids back. (This was kind of weird, but I have no doubt that it’s true: Legal requirements trump caretaking requirements.)
But then we get little bits-and-pieces of their agonizing stories. The movie threatens to veer off into some sensational events, but wisely stays largely low-key. Nothing else has to happen to these kids to increase the dramatic impact, but the omens are there. Nobody escapes unscathed.
Great performances from John Gallagher, Jr., as Mason, and the supporting cast, who are largely not people you’ve heard of, though you might recognize one or two. Grace, played by The Spectacular Now’s Brie Larson, and Jayden, played by Kaitlyn Dever (who also had a small role in Spectacular) have a real sororal chemistry.
The music, which is spare to the point of non-existence, is also quite good. There could’ve been more of it, though that might’ve detracted from the overall documentary feel.
It deeply affected me. The kids not so much, but I take that as a good thing. It’s not something that’s real to them, and there’s no reason it needs to be real to them for a few years. Still, they liked it quite a bit.