Destin Daniel Cretton’s “Short Term 12,” an ensemble piece set at a group home for “at risk” teens, could easily have been a feature-length version of an afterschool special. But while it hasn’t been scrubbed clean of the earnestness that possibility suggests, the film boasts a degree of nuance and realism that puts it leagues above such a dismissive description.
There are quite a few residents in the house, a place of dorm-like rooms set in the middle of an empty plot of land, but a few of them stand out. One is Marcus (Keith Stanfield), a kid who enjoys acting street-wise—and has a running feud with fellow resident Luis (Kevin Hernandez)—but is terrified of going out on his own at his approaching eighteenth birthday, and another Sammy (Alex Calloway), a youngster whose therapist takes away the small dolls to which he’s obsessively attached, sending him into a depression broken by occasional attempts to escape. (The legal rule is that if a child gets beyond the border of the yard, a counselor can only follow him, not touch him.) Then there’s newcomer Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), a girl whose anxiety—and a telling story she’s written—suggest major problems at home with her father.
It’s Jayden whose attitude is read as a cry for help by one of the young counselors, Grace (Brie Larson). Grace, who, it’s revealed, was abused by her own father (a man about to get out of jail), is quickly convinced that Jayden is in a similar situation, but is unable to persuade the girl to say so explicitly. Her increased agitation about not securing intervention by the authorities for Jayden—and her inability to come to terms with her feelings about her own experience—threaten her relationship with another counselor, genial, well-adjusted Mason (John Gallagher, Jr.)—a relationship they have to keep secret (though not very successfully) because of the house rules.
The script’s complications—Grace’s pregnancy, which leads her to wonder about whether she can be a good parent, or the revelation that Mason was a foster child—could have stumbled into maudlin melodrama, but Cretton’s touch is for the most part sufficiently light to avoid the pitfall. He’s aided greatly by his cast. Larson expertly negotiates Grace’s combination of strength and vulnerability, while Gallagher makes us believe in the well-adjusted, supremely supportive Mason as the happy outcome of the affection shown to a troubled boy by surrogate parents after his birth parents had failed him. The youngsters are no less convincing, with Stanfield making a particular impression as a young man on the verge of having to go it alone.
There are still moments when “Short Term 12” presses buttons that might better have been avoided. A sequence in which Grace and Jayden trash the car of the girl’s father provides a rather obvious bit of catharsis. Another involving a possible attack on Luis by Marcus comes across as an overwrought attempt to create such suspense. The periodic episodes involving naïve newbie counselor Nate (Rami Malek) have a condescending air. And there’s a coda about Marcus’ post-home life that’s too much like the closing title cards too many films use nowadays to satisfy questions about “what happened next,” though at least it’s presented in an agreeable way. But such flaws fade in the face of the film’s overall sense of honesty.
This is obviously a low-budget effort, but the technical side is more than adequate to Cretton’s purpose, with Brett Pawlak’s cinematography conveying an appropriately naturalistic style, Rachel Myers’ production design utterly convincing and the costumes by Mirren Gordon-Crozier and Joy Cretton similarly authentic. Joel P. West’s music is unobtrusively supportive.
In lesser hands “Short Term 12” could easily have become a tearjerker, but it neatly sidesteps the trap to remain truthful and affecting.