Thursday, November 21, 2013

'Short Term 12' accolades well deserved

When I attended a film festival earlier this year, I almost passed on seeing “Short Term 12.” The summary for this movie sounded as if it would traffick in the worst indie movie cliches: The story of a supervisor at a foster care facility for at-risk youth.

I could already envision scenes of a supervisor doing her best to make a difference in the lives of troubled teens. The characters would be walking cliches seen in countless movies where a social worker or a teacher is trying to help adolescents trapped in a system that gave up on them long ago.

I am glad I was wrong. “Short Term 12” may be the best movie I have seen this year. It’s clear why this movie won both the jury prize and the audience award at the South by Southwest Film Festival.

Great performances by the actors and the masterful work of writer/director Destin Cretton, who worked in a foster care facility, have produced a sincere and unforgettable story about confronting your past, taking control of your future and healing.

The movie follows Grace (Brie Larson), a supervisor at the facility. Though the home is supposed to be a short-term home that holds these kids for no more than 12 months -- a short-term 12 home -- some youth can spend up to three years at the facility before child welfare officials find a place for them to live.

It’s clear from watching Grace that she’s expertly qualified for this work despite being only a few years older than the teens in her care. She’s won their respect by striking a tricky balance: she’s in control but not an authoritarian, a caring adult but not a pushover.

The film draws much of its strength and believability from the scenes where Grace and the other staffers navigate the daily routine at the home. We meet the residents, who are memorable, fully formed characters dealing with their own unique challenges.

There’s Marcus (Keith Stanfield) who is about turn 18, which means he must leave the home and face the world. There’s Sammy (Alex Calloway), a bipolar youth who plays with dolls and frequently attempts flamboyant escapes from the home. There’s also Luis (Kevin Hernandez), the practical joker of the group.

The film centers on the newest arrival at the home, Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), who is prone to fits of rage and is a cutter. Her father floats in and out of her life, choosing to be a parent only when the mood strikes him. Grace sees herself -- and her own troubled past -- in Jayden. She’s determined to get the young girl to drop her defenses and open up so she can help.

It’s through this struggle to help Jayden that Grace realizes her own life is at a critical juncture: She could lose her boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) if she doesn’t confront her own past and drop the defenses she’s built up over the years to protect herself -- defenses that have kept him at arm’s length.

Cretton expertly tells this story, revealing key pieces of information at just the right moment. The interactions between the kids and the staff also offer just the right dose of humor to prevent the movie from becoming too heavy of an affair. The story told in “Short Term 12” may sound familiar, but it’s infused with a sense of humanity and compassion difficult to capture on film. Quite simply, it is not to be missed.