Just returned from Birmingham’s Sidewalk Film Festival, where my favorite feature was Short Term 12, starring Brie Larson, John Gallagher, Jr., and Kaitlyn Dever, and directed by Destin Cretton. I’m not the only one smitten with this little gem. It won the Audience Award at SXSW earlier this year, so it’s no surprise that it was such a hit in Birmingham, where it sold out and garnered an encore screening.
In a film about a foster care facility for teens, you expect to be hit over the head with the tragedies of a society that is often unable to protect its youth from their own dysfunctional families. You expect to cry, but you don’t expect to laugh or leave the theater feeling happy and inspired. To call this film “light-hearted” would be wrong. It’s not a comedy. Still, it takes the small moments of humor that occur among the staff and teens — a witty comment here, a break in a tense situation there — and turns our expectations upside down.
At the heart of this story is the change that sullen new admit Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) sparks in Grace (Brie Larson), the staff member who seems to be the glue of the facility. We don’t see directly the abuse these kids have received at the hands of unfit parents; instead we witness the intimate aftermath – a young man still angry at his mother, a staff member unable to open up to those closest to her about her own past. Sometimes the facility looks chaotic, but after a while you realize that so often, that is exactly what the healing process looks like. Short Term 12 doesn’t sugar-coat anything, but it is such a hopeful film, one that tells us that kids can recover, that they’re not alone, and that there’s hope for a happy, thriving adulthood after a childhood of pain.
Brie Larson is getting a lot of attention for her starring role as Grace, and she will probably get some deserved nominations. (You may recognize her as daughter Kate from United States of Tara.) Yet I was most intrigued by Keith Stanfield, who plays Marcus, a seventeen-year-old who writes his own hip-hop lyrics and knows he must leave the facility upon his next birthday. Stanfield has such a presence onscreen, not to mention the kind of eyes that would make for a fine romantic lead. He’s definitely one to watch, and I hope to see him in more films.
Playing now in L.A. and New York, Short Term 12 opens nationwide this Friday, August 30th, and releases to more theaters Sept. 6th. Click here for a list of locations. Don’t miss this one. It will hold a spot in the list of the best movies of 2013.