I may prefer to spend the greater majority of my time watching movies with big explosions and lots of goo, but — very occasionally — I hear about Serious Movies that look interesting as well. Short Term 12 is one such film.
Overall, I really liked it.
Grace (Brie Larson) works at a short term foster care facility and begins struggling with memories of her own past when a new girl (Kaitlyn Dever) comes to live there.
1. This is almost certainly going to be a shorter review, not just because I have other things I need to do — although that’s true — but also because I don’t have a lot to say. I can speak to a couple of elements that I think work really well, but I don’t have a complex analysis and/or lengthy snark to offer, and I certainly can’t speak to the authenticity or lack thereof about the film’s depiction of the foster care system. (Though it feels authentic, for whatever that’s worth. Christ. I shudder just typing that. Ever take a creative writing class at college, and you’ll probably know why. Freaking yogurt-eating boho hippies.)
(Apologies to any hippies or bohemians — I didn’t really mean that. Hippies and bohemians are totally okay. Yogurt’s unacceptable though, unless it’s frozen, and even then, it’s really just a tolerable alternative if you can’t get your hands on any actual ice cream, which is clearly the superior dessert, especially if it’s Phish Food from Ben & Jerry’s or Salted Caramel Truffle from Haagen Dazs. But I digress.)
Anyway, if I can keep from going off into too many tangents about high calorie foods, this will likely be a shorter review, as the positive ones so often are. That probably says something bad about me as a person.
2. The acting in this movie is superb.
Brie Larson is a terrific lead. It’s kind of crazy to watch her here, when I primarily know her from playing Envy Adams in Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World. She is WILDLY different. (She also plays Rachel from Community, and I’m looking forward to seeing more of her now that Troy — sadly — has left us.)
Grace is a strong character. She’s very competent and very stubborn, and she has a lot of trouble communicating what’s going on inside her head. A weaker actress might have resorted to 90 minutes of sullen pouting to convey her inner turmoil, but Larson is so good here. It’s lovely to have a female lead character who can be genuinely described as ‘tough’ and ‘compassionate’ and not come off as total cliche.
Also of note:
Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) – the new kid in foster care
Marcus (Keith Stanfield) – a kid who’s about to age out
Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) – Grace’s boyfriend and co-worker
They all do terrific jobs with their respective roles.
3. I really like Mason and Grace together. They have a lot of little moments together which really sells their whole relationship. You get a good sense of how long they’ve been together and how much they mean to one another. Even as tensions rise between Grace and Mason — due to various plot complications — there are considerably less screaming matches and unreasonable demands than you might expect. Basically, their good times are sweet, their problems seem real, and they don’t act like total assholes to one another. It’s honestly pretty refreshing.
4. There’s also a decent amount of humor in this movie, which is helpful considering some of the heavy stuff they get into. The beginning of the film sets the tone fairly well.
5. I have two main problems with Short Term 12. One of them is this guy:
This is Nate (Rami Malek), the newest employee at the facility, and while the actor does what he’s supposed to do, I think I might prefer it if Nate wasn’t in the movie at all. I get why he’s there — he kind of stands in for the audience, not only asking the expository questions but also representing us well-intentioned, privileged people who want to help without having the first clue of what we’re really walking into — but he doesn’t actually contribute much to the story itself and he ends up feeling a lot more like a plot device than an actual character. A really awkward, embarrassing, and not particularly funny plot device, at that — Nate is the one instance where the humor generally falls flat, perhaps because watching characters make asses out of themselves has always been hard for me. (I have, like, sympathy embarrassment. It’s weird.)
The scene where he’s introducing himself is particularly painful. I will not pretend that I would do a good job in this kind of work — I’m sure I would manage to make an ass out of myself too — but I feel that even I know enough to not be all, “Hey, I’m Carlie. I took time off from school to find myself, and I’m here cause I always wanted to work with underprivileged kids.”
Although I must admit: watching Mason –who’s standing behind Nate — mouth “shit” at this announcement is actually pretty funny. (I didn’t catch it the first time around because I was so busy squirming behind my hands from a speech that obviously wasn’t going to go well.)
6. I can’t really talk about my other problem in much detail yet, but I will say that I think they pile on one too many unnecessary complications. It’s not horrible, and the actors are solid enough to keep the whole thing from sliding into melodrama, but there’s one particular development that’s kind of a used as the catalyst for Shit’s Gonna Hit the Fan, and I really don’t think they needed it.
More details means more Spoilers. You know the drill.
Mekaela, don’t read these. You’re being punished for making me watch this by myself.
Okay. So, Grace has a lot going on. I’m going to skip most of the stuff happening at the facility itself and focus on her personal problems: she’s pregnant and freaking out. She immediately schedules an abortion but then later tells Mason they’re going to have a baby. We know Grace has been pregnant before, and we eventually learn — bit by bit — that she was impregnated by her abusive father as a teenager. He went to jail, and she did her best never to think about him again — but a lot of memories are resurfacing, both with the pregnancy and with Jayden’s arrival. (Jayden also has an abusive father, although she won’t admit it.)
The day of Grace’s inevitable breakdown begins when the prison calls to say that her dad’s being released from prison. We knew it was going to be bad news from the second we heard the phone because a) there is no such thing as a good phone call in a movie, and b) Grace and Mason just had a bunch of Happy Times in the scene previous with dancing and an accepted marriage proposal, and there’s a structure to these things.
And ultimately, this is where I have problems — because even though the father never actually comes into the movie, I don’t think we need the threat of his reappearance to act as a catalyst for Grace’s downward spiral — the pregnancy alone is quite enough for that. Pregnancy, I’d imagine, is a stressful enough thing when you’re happy and prepared for it; that, clearly, is not the case here. Between Grace’s connection to Jayden and not being able to talk to anyone about her past, her uncertainty and dread about the baby could easily be a ticking time bomb throughout the movie. This one phone call certainly doesn’t ruin the film, but it does skirt the line of just a little too much for me.
After a fight with her boss that might be a termination, a fight with Mason that might be a breakup, and finding Marcus near dead after slitting his wrists, Grace rides her bicycle to Jayden’s father’s home. I was very concerned at this point that something stupid was about to happen, like she might ride her bike into traffic, which would have been unacceptable. Instead, Grace breaks into the house with a baseball bat. And then I was genuinely like oh shit because I honestly weren’t sure how the movie was going to play this.
Ultimately, Jayden catches Grace before she can kill the shit out of Jayden’s dad while he’s asleep. They talk outside for a while — this is where we actually learn what Grace’s father did to her — and they decide to beat the shit out of Abusive Dad’s car instead of his skull. It’s one of three or four really nice scenes between the two actresses.
The happy ending comes a little bit too fast for me, although I’m not exactly sure how I’d want to fix it — because I don’t particularly want to change anything. Jayden officially reports the abuse. Marcus recovers from his suicide attempt. Grace and Mason make up and decide to keep the baby. You could argue that a woman who broke into a man’s home with a baseball bat might not yet be fit for motherhood, even if he IS an abusive scumbag, and logically I’m not sure I could disagree with you — but I still don’t mind it, probably for a combination of these reasons:
A: Grace really did have a remarkably bad day
B: She normally takes care of children spectacularly well — so Jayden’s cliched line, “You’re going to be a good mom,” actually feels true
C. After her breakdown, Grace starts actually talking to her therapist
D. She seems to genuinely want the baby, even though she’s frightened
E. The movie never seems to pushing ‘abortion is WRONG’ even though her personal choice is not to have an abortion
F. . . yeah, that guy’s still an abusive scumbag
And then we end the film much the same way as we began it — with Mason telling one of his crazy stories (this time a happy one about Marcus, who has since succeeded on his own) and the staff members all chasing after this one kid as he makes a break for it.
Grace: “I like your name, Jayden.”
Jayden: “It’s a boy’s name.”
Grace: “Really? I don’t think so.”
Jayden: “Will Smith did.”
Mason: “I hate that bike. Fuck you, Floyd.”
Grace: “They’re going to ask you a lot of questions. It’s going to be hard.”
Jayden: “I’ll try to leave out the part about you breaking into the house with a baseball bat.”
I think there are some small missteps here or there, but this is a phenomenally well-acted movie and well worth seeing, I think. There aren’t a lot of really good movies that give you a good glimpse into the foster care system — or if there are, I don’t know them — but I think Short Term 12 does a decent job at it.