“Short Term 12” is one of those indie films that can pack an emotional wallop just because it is so small-scale. The characters seem oh so real, and oh so human and oh so vulnerable.
Grace (Brie Larson) is a counselor in a group home for foster kids. They’re teenagers, so they’ve already known plenty of disappointment in their lives. Nobody really wants to be there, but this is where you go when you have no place left to go.
Her co-worker, Mason (John Gallagher, Jr.), also happens to be her lover. Except they try to keep their living together off-campus quiet. Non-fraternization, and all that. But everyone lives so close to each other that there aren’t really any secrets. That’s part of what’s so poignant: the lack of privacy ironically provides a sense of intimacy that everybody craves, but nobody wants to admit they need.
The story actually begins with the introduction of a new staff member, and yes, that always changes the delicate dynamics in such a small group, but it’s not really about the newbie on staff. It’s about the kids. One of them is approaching the end of his time there because he’s turning 18, and he’s terrified of being thrown out on his own despite his apparent chafing at all the rules. There’s the girl whose dad is supposed to come pick her up one weekend and doesn’t, and they all suffer the heartache together.There’s the scared pubescent boy who can’t seem to let go of the dolls that his sister used to have, back when he had a sister. Sometimes he just runs out into the yard screaming, apparently trying to run away, but secretly hoping they’ll catch him, because he so desperately needs the close attention.
Grace, it turns out, is a wonderful counselor: kind, sympathetic, patient, resourceful and obviously caring. Any foster home like this would be lucky to have her on staff. But she has her own issues, too, about belonging and identify and transparency. She can’t help but bring those issues with her and they can’t help but affect how she interacts with both the clients and the staff.
Yes, there’s some rough language. Even though there is punishment for “swearing” (and for fighting), would you really expect everyone to talk to each other like at church choir practice? Yes, there are times when they are actually having fun together, but mostly, it’s a lot of acting out, and then dealing with the fallout and the consequences from the acting out. In a way, it’s like persistent drama, and you begin to suspect that the staff might get a little bored if they didn’t have their daily dose of communal life “in extremis.”
Brie Larson is positively luminous in this harrowing role, in one of those performances where you can’t take your eyes off of her – even though she is not a great beauty or even particularly funny. She’s so empathetic that she’ll bring tears to your eyes just by the way she can give so much of herself. And yet, when it comes to her personal relationships, that’s exactly what she can’t do. And it’s that kind of personality tangle that makes “Short Term 12” such a rarity: a high-impact, small-scoped, slow-paced, grab-your-gut arresting gem of a film.
RONALD P. SALFEN is the minister at St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.