Short Term 12

Year: 2013
Production Co: Animal Kingdom
Director: Destin Cretton
Writer: Destin Cretton
Cast: Brie Larson, John Gallagher, Rami Malek

Short Term 12 was a darling of the awards circuit and the kind of film that might launch a major new talent in Brie Larson the same way Winter's Bone launched Jennifer Lawrence and Another Earth launched Brit Marling.

Unfortunately Short Term 12 is more Winter's Bone – dull, plodding and visually uninteresting – than it is Another Earth, which was a brilliant idea that took off on startling visuals.

Larson is Grace, a carer at the community facility that gives the film its title. She works with her scruffy boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher) and new inductee Nate (Rami Malek) – who serves as the audience for the first third, learning the ropes so as to convey the exposition about the facility and the wayward kids it takes care of.

Grace's issue (more inferred than talked about outright) is that her father abused her and went to jail, the news he's being released causing her to emotionally shut down. It's as fine a characterisation as any, but the extent to which she flat out refuses to discuss any of the ramifications of his abuse with Mason (especially considering the line of work she's in) just feels too cliched.

But the majority of the film is taken up with the various young residents, from the kid who regularly freaks out, bursting through the door and prompting a sprint to the gate (the staff can't detain the kids if they make it off the property) and the angry black kid with dreams of being a rapper to and the new resident, a sullen young woman with a history of self-harm.

The plot weaves throughout the stories of each young resident of Short Term 12 and Grace, Mason and their staff try to hold them together, giving Short Term 12 some oft-told story elements of unsung everyday heroes working on a shoestring under bureaucratic ineptitude.

It's a festival movie, and while we probably shouldn't judge a movie based on the scene that gave it such acclaim (and a distribution deal), if there's ever a festival circuit that gives urban drama a distinct tone, institutions like Sundance and Independent Spirit (where it wowed crowds) is it.

But the problem is that, for a festival movie, it pulls too many punches and doesn't have the convictions of its potential. That's not to say audiences want to see a kid with an anger problem kill one of his peers, a middle-aged father beat and molest his teenage daughter or a suicide. But every time something awful is threatened in Short Term 12 (including the above), it spends too little time on the precipice before everything turns out all right. For a movie about kids at risk, there are just no stakes.

Even the final scene – another run for the fence after the kid who's always trying to break out – is played in slo-mo against hipster folk music as if in celebration of good times.

The acting and the script were uniformly good throughout, it's just that so little rang true, as if screenwriter/director Destin Cretton couldn't stand to put characters he loved so much through anything terrible.

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