It’s always refreshing to see a movie subject that doesn’t get a whole lot of attention. While there’s plenty of fiction about foster kids being placed in homes, the same cannot be said for stories concerning what happens to the kids before that. It’s an interesting idea, to show unplaced foster children and the people who have to care for them. This is precisely what we get in writer-director Destin Cretton’s touching and bittersweet little film Short Term 12, which features uniformly fantastic performances which bring a high level of believability to a storyline that starts to look like a whole season of After School Specials.
The film begins with the first day of a new staff member (Rami Malek) at a short term foster care facility, the eponymous “Short Term 12.” Immediately his new co-workers (Nerdist Podcast guest Brie Larson and The Newsroom’s John Gallagher Jr.) tell him humorous horror stories about past cases just as one of the young charges decides to make a dash for it. You see, if any of the kids can make it off of the grounds of the facility, the staff members can no longer touch them or restrain them. Remember this foreshadowing, because it comes into play later.
Larson and Gallagher play Grace and Mason, two longtime workers at the facility who are also a romantic item. Things are a little strained between them, though we initially know not why. We’re introduced to the kids who live in the facility; each has his or her own story, problem, and personality quirks. Two of the kids become the focal point of the story, one, a boy named Marcus (Keith Stanfield) who is nearing his 18th birthday and will therefore be released from foster care, and a new girl named Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), who is apparently the scourge of facilities like this with her violent outbursts and general bad behavior. Through helping these, and the other kids at Short Term 12, we learn about the staff members and their pasts and how their lives certainly aren’t all wine and roses.
There’s lots to like about Short Term 12. As I said, the idea is fresh and we haven’t seen it very often. Foster care is a topic that is definitely underrepresented in film, and to have it done in such a way that doesn’t shy from the difficult and troubling, and sometimes sort of hopeless, aspects of working in such a field is engaging. There’s enough real-life humor at work as well, so the heavy subject isn’t debilitating. The one thing that I feel Cretton (who drew on his own experiences with foster care for the movie) didn’t do quite so well is the level to which everything is played. There are two or three VERY intense storylines with the kids, not to mention Grace and Mason’s rather intense storyline on their own. Any one of these would have been plenty for the movie, but having all of them, each reaching a fever pitch, and then trying to play it off like they all happened the same week as if it’s no big deal rang as untrue. Perhaps I’m wrong and it happens all the time, but it just felt very dramatic-for-the-purpose-of-drama.
However, most of this is made up for by the truly wonderful performances on the part of all of the actors. Larson is magnetic as the troubled yet upbeat heart of the movie, and her interplay with the child actors is really a joy to watch. The praise she’s been receiving for the role is completely justified. Gallagher Jr. is also quite good playing the put-upon boyfriend who always tries to lighten the mood, even in the darkest times. Special acknowledgement needs to be given to all of the outstanding child actors. It’s hard for kids to be believable when such heavy things are happening, but each of them feels so genuine that each tear they shed or smile they crack feels unrehearsed.
While it almost reaches the point of schmaltz and hokum toward the end, Short Term 12 never quite gets there and is able to hold the audience with brilliant, truthful performances. While not a perfect movie, it’s a very solid, very artful feature from a filmmaker to keep an eye on in the future.