Monday, March 21, 2016

Nick's Picks: Short Term 12

Film: Short Term 12
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

This is the third in a series of twelve movies selected by Nick Jobe.

About half a year ago, I made a list for myself of movies that aren’t on my Oscar or horror lists that I should get around to watching. Short Term 12 is one that’s been on that list from the start, so when Nick put it on his list of movies for me to watch this year, it was like killing two birds with one stone. It’s one I’ve wanted to see for a while, so today seemed like a pretty good opportunity. That it was the film that led to Brie Larson getting her role in Room and thus her Oscar is merely a bonus.

Short Term 12 takes place mainly in a group home for troubled teens. Grace (Brie Larson) is the supervisor of this home, where she works with Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), who is also her live-in boyfriend. As the film starts, it’s the first day on the job for Nate (Rami Malek) and Mason is relating a story about a past encounter with one of the kids when another one of the kids makes a break for the gates. This is a typical day, apparently.

There are a few important stories that run through Short Term 12. The first is that Grace discovers that she is pregnant, and even though she eventually tells Mason, she doesn’t want to have the baby. Mason doesn’t understand initially, but it ties back to some very dark events in Grace’s past. The second story concerns Marcus (Keith Stanfield), a young man who lives at the home and is about to turn 18, at which point he will be forced to leave. While it’s not evident at first, Marcus really doesn’t want to leave and doesn’t think that he can survive outside the home. Third is the arrival of Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), a new resident with whom Grace forms a bond. Jayden doesn’t immediately fit in, and Grace is suspicious that she may have been abused. Fourth is the news that Grace’s father is being released from prison.

All three of these stories converge on Grace at the same time and bring up a number of painful realities from her past. Essentially, Short Term 12 is the story of a complete breakdown of Grace’s world and how she ends up dealing with it. It does this in a compact 96 minutes.

What makes Short Term 12 work is the performances combined with the story. The story works because it’s not a melodrama or a crazy combination of events. The quartet of events that set off Grace’s breakdown are all completely normal events. Grace gets pregnant, Jayden arrives, Grace’s father gets parole, and Marcus gets too old to stay in the home. There’s nothing extraordinary here, but all of them hit at the same time and all of them affect her in completely different ways.

The performances are what make the story work, though. It’s not a surprise having seen this that Brie Larson was sought out for Room, because her performance’s strength is that she is empathetic with all of the other characters—to her detriment—and because of this completely sympathetic. Larson’s Grace cares deeply about the children in her charge to the point where she really has no time to care about herself. Mason wants to give her space but she has never opened up to him because she can’t allow herself to open those particular doors in her mind, even with Jayden and Marcus force them open. In fact, her work at the home seems almost to be a penance for her for crimes that she didn’t commit but that were committed against her.

The supporting cast is damn good as well. John Gallagher Jr. deserves to be better known if this is an indication of his skill in front of the camera. The real surprise for me is Keith Stanfield, who I can only hope has a hell of a career. It makes me quite a bit more interested in seeing Straight Outta Compton in the weeks ahead. One of the high points of the film is Marcus reacting to another kid insulting his mother and then sitting with Mason and reciting a new set of rap lyrics he’s written.

Before I watched it, I thought for some reason that Short Term 12 was going to be a feel-good, and while the ending certainly gets us there, this isn’t a feel-good movie. It’s a painful one in a lot of respects. Most of the characters are broken in terrible ways. Even Mason, who seems like the one who has it all together more than anyone, comes from a broken past and grew up with foster parents.

Short Term 12 is well-written and beautifully acted. For as dark as it gets, it’s ultimately a life-affirming film. Admittedly my tastes often run darker, but ultimately, I like to see films that tell us that while everything may not always be okay, somehow we call all get through it.

Solid win, Nick. You’re 2 for 3.

Why to watch Short Term 12: A very good story.
Why not to watch: For some reason I thought this was supposed to be a comedy and it’s really not.


  1. The main characters' names seem to be symbolism-heavy: Grace brings a measure of shelter, hope, and happiness (i.e., rescue/salvation) to those around her; Mason, the builder in some perhaps-metaphysical sense, is a constructive force in Grace's life. (The filmmakers could've gone for irony and made Mason a murderous drug addict on a death spiral: destruction incarnate.)

    1. It's impossible not to read things into the names, of course. Mason's name could be symbolic because of his desire to "build" people. It could just as easily be ironic in that his goal throughout is to break down walls and barriers.

      Too easy to read into it what you want, which is why I often avoid going into the symbolism.

  2. Nice review. A tough watch, but also one of my favorite films of the past few years.

    - Zach

    1. There are some hard parts of this, but I like the way it ends quite a bit.

  3. Finally got around to reading your review. I loved this one as well, and it almost didn't make the final cut of your watch list because I was cutting back. But I'm glad I kept it in. I've only seen it the once, but I'd like to see it again despite its heaviness. I looked up who Keith Stanfield plays in Straight Outta Compton (another great flick). He does a really fun Snoop, though Snoop isn't in the film much, actually.

    1. Be that as it may, I think Keith Stanfield might have a good career in front of him. He's one of the film's real high points, and in a good film, that's saying something.