Ever since her breakthrough as Kate Gregson on the underappreciated Showtime series United States of Tara, we knew there was something special about Brie Larson. She handled the naivety and whimsy of a teenage girl like a boss, maintaining likability despite the character’s flightiness and poor decision-making, while also conveying emotion in her wide, commanding eyes with no more than a blink. Not only did she adeptly achieve Tara’s tricky “dramedic” tone in her performance, but Larson also held her own against some top-notch vets like Toni Collette and Rosemarie DeWitt.
In last year’s beloved (and Oscar-snubbed) critical darling Short Term 12, Larson continues her rise as Grace, a twenty-something supervisor at a foster-care facility for at-risk teens. Grace is firm yet passionate; a remarkably able caretaker for the children mostly stemming from her own past experiences, which she keeps buried deep inside. She dates her long-term boyfriend and co-worker Mason (The Newsroom’s John Gallagher, Jr.) who is the dynamic Mr. Niceguy she so very needs, but struggles to open up to. When a new resident moves into the facility, a young teen girl named Jayden who may be getting abused by her dad, Grace’s foundation begins to crack. But will she be able to face her past?
Throughout the film’s 97-minute run, we gradually meet the other kids living in Grace’s unit. Almost 18-year-old Marcus is scared to leave and still coping with his torturous past, while Sammy, a seemingly disturbed child with an unhealthy attachment to dolls, tries to escape the ward repeatedly. Their stories and traumas are heartbreaking and difficult to watch. Presented as separate arcs weaved in between the main narrative, writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton captures powerful moments as if we’re flies on the wall naturally witnessing these events.
When new-guy Nate starts his first day working at the care center, Mason’s stories help further establish their lives: besides the gut-wrenching pain the children and workers face on a daily basis, there’s also humor, drama, empathy and loyalty to be had. It’s a colorful emotional spectrum that never lets up on its realism and never panders toward the positive when things get too heavy.
When Jayden arrives at the center, she is a snotty – albeit, smart – little brat, but what inducts Grace and her colleagues into sainthood is the level they go to help the kids ride through the ups and downs of life’s bullshit and pain. As a result of helping Jayden confront her problems, Grace is unexpectedly forced to do the same.
Short Term 12 is everything we should demand movies to be; yes, it’s tragic, but it’s also human and full of hope. If only more films were this reflective. Grade: A