At the first TCM Film Festival, back in 2010, I think it’s safe to say my brothers and I were the youngest people there. We cornered Ben Mankiewicz (just kidding – he loved talking to us!) and asked him if he thought good movies were still being made today. We were trying to settle an argument in which my dad had asserted that most movies made after 1990 were of mediocre quality. Ben laughed and told us that of course, good movies were still being made. He said that whether it was 1940 or 2010, there are good movies and there are bad movies. No time is perfect. Short Term 12, made in 2013, is a perfect example for anyone who thinks that new movies are all crap.
I remember very distinctly seeing the trailer for this movie and saying, “Ooh, Brie Larson and John Gallagher Jr!” Yes, I was literally seeing it because of the stars. I never thought it would become one of my favorite movies, but it did. When it came out in Los Angeles, I dragged my roommate to see it with me. We were two of four people in the theater…mind you, it was a week day, but still…
It was one of those experiences you have where you come out of the theater and can’t believe something that amazing exists, something that touches you on such a deep level and is actually about an important issue. I was in awe of this film and so, went back to see it in theaters multiple times, each time dragging a new person with me. I was a little obsessive.
If you’ve never seen the film, here’s the 411: Short Term 12 follows a group of line staff at a short-term care center for foster kids. The place is essentially a halfway house – as Brie says in the film, “they just keep them [the kids] until the state figures out where they’re gonna go next” (Cretton). Brie’s character, Grace, is leader of the line staff. She’s a girl who has a few demons of her own. She takes her job very seriously and when they take in a new girl, Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), Grace is forced to face those demons. And of course, that complicates her relationship with her boyfriend and fellow line staff member, Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) and drama ensues!
So, even though this blog is dedicated almost exclusively to older films, I wanted to take a minute and talk about this film because it is already a classic. And here are a few reasons why:
Obviously, Brie Larson won the Oscar this past year for her performance in Room, (which is also great), but I believe her performance in Short Term 12 was just as Oscar worthy. I remember hearing a story about James Cagney in which he gave advice on acting. He said, “You walk in, plant yourself, look the other fella in the eye, and tell the truth” (Cagney). Brie Larson, whether she’s heard that advice or not, reflects that ideal in this film. She’s so genuine in every moment. This movie would be worth watching just for her performance which is subtle, relatable, and heartbreaking.
John Gallagher Jr. is also wonderful as Mason. I’ve been a fan of John since he was in the original cast of Spring Awakening on Broadway. And then, of course, he was on The Newsroom, a show which I worship in a god-like way. He shares that same verisimilitude that Brie has. In every moment of everything I’ve seen him in, there’s never been one false moment. Maybe that’s why it’s so easy to fall in love with him, in The Newsroom and in Short Term 12. Plus, he’s hilarious!
Kaitlyn Dever was quite the discovery as Jayden, the new girl with an attitude problem. It’s easy when you first see her on screen to put her in a box, but she’s got layers upon layers and took her big emotional moments in the film and played them with subtlety. I’m sure we’re going to see great things from her.
Keith Stanfield had been in the original short that Director Destin Cretton made on the subject. He shines as Marcus, a quiet, smart, but insecure kid who’s about to turn eighteen, and thus, be thrown out into the real world, with no one to help him. He wrote original raps for the film and they are heart-wrenching and powerful.
Finally, Rami Malek (who, of course now, has had great success with USA’s Mr. Robot) is great as the newest line staff member, Nate. His part may be small, but he makes the most of it and actually has some of the funniest moments in the film.
Destin Daniel Cretton first made a short about this subject and then decided to expand it into a feature. He based on his time working in residential foster care. As such, there’s a weight to it beyond just being an entertaining story. He obviously wanted to tell this story because his experiences and what he observed were close to his heart. His story is what all great stories are about: human beings. Flawed as the characters might be, they’re completely relatable and feel true.
As a writer, his screenplay is truly inspiring to me.
The original score for Short Term 12 was written by Joel P. West, who’s only just now, starting to garner some attention. To me, his music is vital to the film. It almost feels like another character. It’s subtle and somehow fits these people and their journeys perfectly.
As I mentioned, though, Keith Stanfield wrote some raps for the film and they are incredible. This one, especially:
Brett Pawlak served as DP on the film and the results are incredible. This also goes hand in hand with the direction of the film. There’s a scene where Jayden is waiting to be picked up, listening to a song on headphones. Cretton and Pawlak do such a great job of making you feel like you’re in her head, going through it along with her.
It’s heartfelt and deeply moving
This movie left an impression on me. It’s special because it’s not exploitative. It’s coming from the heart and you can tell. Some people, like my dad, have a bias against new films simply because they’re new. And mind you, I think there are a lot of bad movies being made today. But, this movie is a reminder that a good story is a good story, no matter when it’s made. Cretton established himself as a filmmaker interested in characters and I can’t wait to see his next film!
Watch the trailer below. The film is available to stream on Netflix. 😍