A hit at Austin's South by Southwest Film Festival last March, winning both the grand jury prize and the main audience award, Short Term 12 is a triumph of modesty. The setting is a group home for at-risk teenagers; the title refers to the typical 12-month stay, which could provide any number of tear-jerking and inspirational moments. Instead, writer-director Destin Cretton aims for understated emotional authenticity.
The script is based on Cretton's experiences working in a similar facility. The film begins with an introductory sequence, in which caregiver Nate (Rami Malek) shows up on the lawn of a suburban bungalow for his first day of work. He meets his chatty new co-worker, Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), and a few minutes later, supervisor Grace (Brie Larson) shows up on her bicycle.
Nate gets shown the ropes – doors must be left open, the day begins with the morning meeting – and he also receives a verbal slap from one of the residents when he refers to them as "underprivileged kids." The pressing topic is the imminent graduation of Marcus (Keith Stanfield), a bright, moody African-American kid who is about to turn 18 and leave the house. There's Luis (Kevin Hernandez), a troublemaker who knows how to press Marcus's buttons. There's another childlike boy, Sammy, who turns his attempts to run away into a game.
Gradually the story focuses on Grace, the no-nonsense house mother, who insists on an emotional openness from the residents she doesn't practise herself. Outside of the job, Grace and Mason live together as a couple although they try to keep their relationship secret, arriving and leaving work separately. Early in the film, Grace visits her doctor who tells her she's pregnant, but she keeps the news from Mason.
One realistic, complicating factor is that some of the caregivers, including Grace, had tough childhoods that aren't that dissimilar to the residents. When a new girl, Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), is brought into the house because her middle-class, single dad can't manage her, Grace identifies with her though it's not clear if she's right to do so. The combination of Jayden's issues, her own pregnancy and news from her past sends Grace into emotional free fall.
The film's climax feels a little rushed and overwrought, but the movie's real resonance is its exploration of empathy and vocation. Grace is a type, an empathetic, take-charge personality whose assertiveness is a form of habitual overcompensation for personal issues that aren't short-term. All of that can be felt in the performance by Larson (United States of Tara) who, at just 24, navigates these tricky emotional straits with confidence and nuance.
Short Term 12 is also a love story. As Grace begins behaving erratically, her easygoing boyfriend, Mason, feels shut out and confused. More of an older brother than a father figure with the kids, he pushes Grace to open up. He's also proof that tough beginnings aren't a curse. In one sequence, he takes her to visit his extended loving family – or rather his extended family of foster siblings – for an anniversary party for the Hispanic couple who tended to them, and the otherwise understated musical score erupts in the cheerful blast of a mariachi trumpet.
Cretton has a special technique of letting characters reveal themselves that suggests some kind of quasi-therapeutic training. His first feature, I Am Not a Hipster, was set in the San Diego alternative music and art scene, and here he often uses performing moments as a way to define character. Marcus uses an autobiographical rap to talk about his childhood, dealing drugs for his mother. At a critical juncture, Jayden reads to Grace a children's story she has written about an octopus and a shark. And the movie is bookended with two of Mason's embellished stories of life in the caregiver trenches. When you have something that's too important and personal to say directly, the best approach may be to tell a story.