Small indie flick “Short Term 12” packs huge emotional punch

Larson (right) gives an honest and heart wrenching  performance as the supervisor at foster care facility for at-risk youth.

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Larson (right) gives an honest and heart wrenching performance as the supervisor at foster care facility for at-risk youth.

There is a scene in Destin Daniel Cretton’s Short Term 12, about 20 minutes in, where the two central characters are finishing a story started in the opening of the film, and while the story heard in the beginning was funny, the ending – a young man who died two days after the aforementioned events transpired – was not. That quick leap, from a laugh to a moment where it’s hard to breath, where the hurt is shocking, real, and strong, is something Short Term 12 has perfected. One moment the audience is chuckling at the candor and sense of humor the writing displays so many ways, the next hurting for a character who is struggling through vast amounts of pain and emotional turmoil, and back again at a whiplash-inducing pace.


Short Term 12 wears its heart on in its sleeve, the unapologetic emotion of the script refreshing in a time when it’s much cooler for a movie to be cynical. The story, based on screenwriter and director Cretton’s own time working in foster care, is set at a short term living center for at-risk youth. The center’s supervisor Grace (Brie Larson), the pulse of the film, navigates caring for these children who have fallen through the cracks, all while dealing with ghosts that are echoed back to her through the children’s experiences.

Headed by the magnificent Larson, the cast shines; there is not a bad performance in the film. From John Gallagher Jr. playing Grace’s co-worker and boyfriend, Mason, who is being torn to pieces by his love for the woman who refuses to open up to him, to Kaitlyn Dever, the anguished young girl, who recently was placed in the community, every actor brings the heart-wrenching script life, even those with no more than five lines.

Every emotion [the film] wrings out of the audience is well earned.

— Laura Shannon

One of the most outstanding performances comes from newcomer Keith Stanfield, the only cast member to return from Cretton’s 2008 short of the same name and subject matter, as Marcus, a soon to be 18-year-old in his last days at the place he’s lived for three years and the only real home, an family, he’s ever had. Stanfield brings a raw emotion that make his scenes painful to watch but that much more powerful.

It is Larson, however, who gives the performance that will lingers in the audiences’ minds long after the credits roll. The subtle heartbreak she brings to every scene is lined with a glimpse of hope that makes this movie as truly beautiful as it is.

Perhaps most refreshing is that these are not characters designed to inspire sympathy or pity, rather they invoke admiration,adoration, shock, and empathy. Even the kids at the unit who play only a small role in the story are not prototypes, seen time and time again when a director wants the audience to pity a child; they’re bigger and more nuanced than that.


The direction and filming of the movie includes an eye for detail, unparalled in modern day cinema. Every shot and angle is intentional, with a skillful hand that transforms the theater into the center or Grace’s world. Every scene is beautifully paired with a soft, emotional score, enhancing each moment.

Despite how easily it could have been, Short Term 12 never once felt melodramatic, preachy, or resolved. Every emotion it wrings out of the audience is well-earned. In 96 minutes, the film delivers more emotions than any of the year’s big blockbusters; I might go as far as saying it’s most worthwhile film of the year.

When the film closed, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house, and yes, that is a cliche – one that is usually without truth – but after looking around the theater, witnessing mascara stains or puffy eyes on my neighbors, I don’t think there’s ever been a time where I could use that old cliche with this much honesty.

Short Term 12 is playing at the Landmark Uptown Theatre for a limited engagement.