Sunday, August 25, 2013

Short Term 12

Sometimes a movie comes along. Nobody knows much about it; all they know is it’s supposed to be good. And it is. And at this moment in time, that movie is Destin Daniel Cretton’s “Short Term 12,” an unexpected crowd-pleaser about a group home for at-risk kids – a sort of way station between stops in the county bureaucracy.

The administrator is Jack (Frantz Turner), but the person who runs the place at ground level is Grace (Brie Larson, Miles Teller’s ex-girlfriend in “The Spectacular Now”), a young woman of 20 worldly wise beyond her years, who doles out privileges and punishments and finds sympathy for these young people she doesn’t allow for herself. Alongside Grace works her boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher Jr. of “The Newsroom”), who asks Grace countless times to “let him in,” to apply to the demons in her past the same openness and candor she asks of her charges. 

The newest member of their team is Nate (Rami Malek), who’s well-meaning but may be in over his head, and for whom Cretton has written some very funny scenes. After they chase down Sammy (Alex Calloway), a sweet pre-teen with a large collection of dolls, when he tries to escape (the rules are, they can’t touch the kids once they’ve stepped foot outside the gates), their colleague Jessica (Stephanie Beatriz) asks, “How’re you doing?” “Not so well,” Nate replies, still trying to catch his breath. She tells him she meant Sammy, who assures her he’s fine. 

The best of “Short Term 12’s” many terrific qualities is its respect for the audience. This is a film – and a filmmaker – with the courage to leave a lot unsaid, a lot unexplained. You’re thrown into the middle of the action, and you pick up things – the derivation of the name Short Term 12, the lingo (“level drops”) – by observation, obliquely, or not at all. The same applies to the kids’ backstories, and to Grace’s. What a treat not to be spoon-fed for a change.

In one scene, Marcus (Keith Stanfield), who’ll soon turn 18 and age out of the system, shares with Mason some rap lyrics he’s been working on, which to the careful listener yield clues about how he came to be there. (It may be the most meaningful movie rap since the one Emmanuel Johnson’s Dixon sang to John C. Reilly’s Officer Kurring early in “Magnolia.”) At one of the regular community meetings, Sammy asks if they could replace one of their usual games with one he’s invented called “Big and Small.” Grace tells him to explain it to her afterwards. We never learn how it’s played.

The closest thing to a plot involves a new arrival named Jayden, a “cutter” and “biter” of whom Jack asks Grace to take particular care. She’s played by young Kaitlyn Dever with just the right mix of blasé bravado and deeply repressed vulnerability. She takes a very long time to warm to Grace, and one afternoon, after they’ve been drawing together, she shows Grace some illustrations for a children’s story she’s written called “Nina the Octopus.” I won’t tell you any more about the story except that it moved me to tears, and that Grace is the only one whose own history has put her in position to extrapolate all of its implications.

As Grace, Larson is riveting, a revelation – you can’t take your eyes off her. Gallagher makes the kind and endlessly forgiving Mason – scruffy and unkempt as he is – nothing less than lovable. And it’s rare not to have even one weak link among the cast of child actors. “Short Term 12” got a hearty ovation from my audience. How often can it genuinely be said that a movie makes you laugh, makes you cry, makes you think, and makes you applaud? “Short Term 12” is one of the nicest surprises of the year in film.

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