#36 — Short Term 12 (Destin Daniel Cretton, 2013)
After Destin Daniel Cretton graduated from college, he worked in a group home for at-risk youth. Firsthand experience with depicted subject matter isn’t entirely necessary to make a compelling feature film, but Cretton’s Short Term 12 shows how drawing on one’s own background can immensely help. Set in the kind of live-in facility where Cretton once toiled, the film has a level of verisimilitude that is almost disconcerting. The narrative turns navigated by the film’s young people — a description that suits the residents and also much of the staff — are not puffed-up drama. Instead, the powerful impact stems from the feeling of dreadful normalcy, that the negative experiences aren’t representative of the worst stretch in these individual’s life, but are instead reflective of an ongoing normalcy. The pain and woe are mundane.
The cast is studded with exceptional young performers in fine form — Kaitlyn Dever, Lakeith Stanfield, and Stephanie Beatriz among them — but the film invaluable emotional core is provided by Brie Larson, playing one of the counselors. She is tough but caring, worn down by the work but determined to see it through. A troubled personal history that gives her a greater ability to relate to the kids absolutely radiates off of her, like heat from a bad sunburn. These aren’t especially novel characteristics for the role, but Larson plays it with a deep honesty and idling combustibility that knocks familiarity aside. Through her commitment, Larson makes the fictions harshly real.
Larson’s fine, focused sensitivity is matched by Cretton, in both his writing and directing. He has a sharp visual sense, but he also understands the importance of getting out of the way, forgoing flash in favored of restrained intimacy. The film has the unpolished feel of conversations captured rather than staged, with billowing anger clacking hard against the bleak humor of beset survivors. It is a film populated by characters who are locking themselves away from everything outside their own being, all too aware of the way life mercilessly scalds the unguarded. Cretton gives the characters the valuable gift of letting them be more than clicking gears in a very-special-episode type of storytelling. Mixing divergent tones expertly and homing in on heartbreaking moments with loving empathy, Cretton commits to the real, hard as it may be. In that approach, Short Term 12 bestows grace and dignity on those it portrays.