Friday, January 24, 2014

Short Term 12

Short Term 12 could very well be the best film you didn't see in 2013. Writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton's second feature is a sensitive and carefully observed drama that doesn't ape Hollywood fare but if anything goes too far the other way. Grace (Brie Larson, in one of the year's best performances) works in a group home for adolescents where her days are spent chasing down would-be escapees, probing her charges for their feelings, and enforcing an open-door rule on the hallways. Grace's devoted boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher, Jr.) is also her co-worker, and he's more than ready to rise to the occasion when Grace tells him she's pregnant. Cretton has a way with quiet moments; there's a rap performed by a resident (Keith Stanfield) about to age out of the home that's a scene of remarkable intimacy and a new counselor (Rami Malek) who at first appears to be a comical figure gets to prove he belongs in a wordless moment with a young boy. A turning point in the film is the arrival of Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), a teenage girl whose father has the connections to take her out on a weekend pass. The connection between Grace and Jayden is the most schematic part of Short Term 12, with Jayden serving a perfect catalyst for the raising of Grace's long-buried issues. A lesser film might have turned Grace's journey into something mawkish, but Larson's performance is so close the bone that we're invested in making sure Grace is OK before thinking about the not too surprising plot revelations that come in the movie's last third. John Gallagher, Jr. gets to be sensitive to a fault in his role on The Newsroom, but here his confusion at the distance Grace keeps from him has just the right amount of bite. It's both exciting and concerning to see Cretton's next project is a Jennifer Lawrence film. I hope he's able to work on a larger scale without losing his touch, because though Short Term 12 may be a little too psychologically neat it's also a work of very welcome honesty.

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