September 04, 2013

MOVIES: Short Term 12 (Destin Daniel Cretton, 2013)

You hear the premise for this movie, and you might understandably fear some sort of dreary exercise in sentimental manipulation: Two young 20-somethings, each carrying a significant load of emotional baggage, struggle to make their relationship work while working at a group home for teens who are waiting to be placed in a foster home. But writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton makes his characters so vivid and specific, and finds enough humor in their lives, to raise the movie far above the Afterschool Special level. It's one of the best movies of the year.

Much of the credit goes to Brie Larson, who stars as Grace, the staff supervisor at the group home. She's good with the kids, and has a genuine gift for being supportive without coming across as smug or condescending. She's less good at asking for help than she is at giving it, though; in the delightful and useful phrase of TV critic Daniel Feinberg, this is a Vocational Irony Narrative.

That tendency to close herself off causes difficulty for her boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), who is a character we see far too rarely in movies; he's a genuinely decent guy without being an idiot or a wimp. He accepts her reluctance to share certain things, but isn't willing to let himself be shut out entirely.

Grace and Mason both have personal reasons for going into this line of work, and those revelations felt a bit too pat and obvious. I think it more likely, in fact, that someone with Grace's background would have chosen any career but this one. Cretton's screenplay allows those revelations to play out in reasonbly convincing fashion, though, and they are dramatically effective.

There are fine performances from the actors playing the home's resident kids, too. Making particularly strong impressions are Kaitlyn Dever as Jaden, the newest resident, whose personal struggles hit very close to home for Grace; and Keith Stanfield as Marcus, who is about to turn 18 and has very mixed feelings about leaving the foster care system.

The writing and acting create characters and a background that feel utterly real; the emotion is sincerely and honestly earned. The fact that the actors are relatively unknown -- Larson, Gallagher, and Dever are best known for TV or theater work; and this is Stanfield's first feature film -- helps, I think, to create that reality, because we're not being distracted by familiar faces and big-name stars. This is a very special movie, and I can't recommend it highly enough.

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