Ignited by the news of her abusive father’s impending release from prison and accelerated by the attempted suicide of a boy named Marcus, a longtime occupant of the residential treatment facility at which she works, Grace takes her bicycle for a spin to clear her head from a crowded space of complexities. She’s going nowhere in particular, except away from her boyfriend/fiancé Mason because she can’t do all she has promised him and herself to do.
She promised herself she would let Marcus, a smart, mostly soft-spoken boy and one of the few three-year residents of the facility, go on his marry way as he turns 18 and legally heads into the real world in the next week. She wanted to keep Jayden, a recently added resident who’s seen as a younger extension of Grace, safe from her abusive father. But it’s all spiraling out of control. Grace looks for something to latch on to, some hero to play, and she thinks she can do it by ending Jayden’s hardship by ending Jayden’s father. She rides her bike, a charming racer she calls Floyd, to the young girl’s home, where her dad has checked her out of the facility for a long weekend.
Grace goes to exorcise her own demons, as if smashing Jayden’s father’s head in with a wooden bat would act as a placeholder for the fury she would’ve liked to unleash on her own parent.
You’re rooting against it, hoping Grace senses the wrong in her pre-meditated act. Where’s the supervising staff to chase, catch and calm her down when she needs it? This is where Jayden comes in, appearing in the hallway and quietly baiting Grace away from her father’s bedside — in turn, saving Grace.
There’s a better punching bag outside. Jayden hands the bat to Grace after bashing in a pair of her father’s passenger-side car windows and Grace mounts the hood, gaining heroic leverage atop a mountain. She wails on the windshield, smashing it over and over and over and over again as chips of glass shatter off around her. Again and again and once more, like the scars on her ankles heal by each striking connection she makes with the poetically tough front window.
This scene is one of the great, empowering triumphs in recent memory and “Short Term 12” is one of the best, most satisfying films I’ve ever seen.
Writer and director Destin Daniel Cretton taps into every emotion of the children in this short-term residential treatment facility and Grace, their charming, lively and smart leader and supervisor who’s grappling with struggles of her own from her past and present life. “Short Term 12” is beautifully directed by Cretton, who captures the kids’ quiet, thoughtful moments through their bedroom doors. His directing brings to life the colorful cast of occupants he penned to paper — a charismatic troublemaker named Luis, a bold yet tragic boy named Sammy, and the aforementioned Marcus and Jayden. Cretton uses the supervisors of the Short Term 12 facility to interact with these kids, bringing out their personality. At the forefront, the cooler head of Mason, played by John Gallagher Jr., Grace’s colleague then boyfriend and recently fiancé. Mason’s a wonderful leveler alongside Grace and a happy, enjoyable character all together.
The brightest star is saved for the trailblazing performance of Brie Larson, who owns the role of Grace with the highest marks. Larson is in all the right emotional places when she needs to be, and, in “Short Term 12,” that can change on a dime. One moment, she’s braiding hair for one of the young girls. The next, she’s bursting out the back door, chasing Jayden all the way to the bus stop. She could be the comedic supervisor, then the intimidating overseer in a snap. Larson paints a beautiful and realistic portrait of her character.
What we know separates Larson from her actress peers is how easily she can charm on screen. She’s done it in everything — I’m thinking “21 Jump Street” and “Don Jon.” She’s walking around with a water gun, early in “Short Term 12,” waking up Luis with a couple soaks to the face. She’s drawing amateur portraits with Mason and eloquently talking about her bike Floyd like it’s her closest confidant. She’s cool, but she can lay the hammer down. Larson takes Cretton’s film out of the atmosphere with her dramatic acting sequences, the car bashing being her greatest moment. Even in the quietest sequences — closely tailing Jayden all the way home on her facility escape, or intricately sweeping through room checks with her headphones while the kids are outside — there seems to be something special going on with each move she makes. Her performance is one to marvel, one that won’t be forgotten, one that leaves me begging for more.
“Short Term 12” ended perfectly with a well-selected camera shot, panning out of the lawn outside of the facility as Sammy, wearing the American flag for a cape, runs away, chased by Grace and the other supervisors. Sammy did the same, sans flag, at the beginning of the movie, but something feels different this time. Maybe it’s the happy-ending story Mason is telling at the end, compared to the sad one at the beginning of the film. Maybe it’s the flag. Maybe it’s me at peace with how it all settled for Grace. Either way, this escape attempt isn’t the same as his first one. Sammy isn’t intending to go anywhere. As the camera pulls out, he’s slightly turning toward the supervisors. He just wants to have a little fun. He’s restoring order by sparking a wild goose chase.
I think, even if Grace and Co. weren’t chasing him, Sammy would’ve walked back home to the facility. Why? Because all is good in Short Term 12.
“Short Term 12”: ★★★★