Film review: Once locked in, your short-term fears will vanish

This film initially had me squirming in my seat. For the first few moments I had the disconcerting impression that Short Term 12 was a big screen reboot of Dawson’s Creek complete with Californian adolescent musings and life-lesson soundbites from self-satisfied 20-somethings who pontificate more like divorcees in their 40s.

In short, this was my own personal TV hell writ large, figuratively and literally. Just as well then, that my lack of a remote control meant I was unable to switch channels.

Amazing Grace’s fresh face
The film is set almost exclusively in a residential care facility for teenagers who appear to be mentally unstable, likely self-harming and otherwise a risk to society and/or themselves.

We are quickly introduced to our protagonist Grace (Larson), a supervisor who confusingly appears to be no older than many of the residents. She’s in a long-term relationship with Mason (Gallagher Jr), an affable everydude who likes to tell amusing anecdotes and, despite his floppy appearance, usually rises to the challenge of every crisis the narrative throws his way.

We discover early on that Grace is pregnant, although she keeps the news to herself. 

Grace is a natural at her work and clearly has the respect of the teenagers and her co-workers. But when she’s presented with Jayden (Dever), he proves to be a particular challenge, not least because she reminds Grace so much of herself. 

Creeps up … some will weep
All of the principal roles are well performed, including those of the teenage residents: in particular Marcus (Stanfield). Despite being a secondary role, Marcus has important interactions with every other character and more precisely, Keith Stansfield’s portrayal of him saves the film from sliding perilously close to angst-ridden, white middle-class navel gazing and instead anchors it in a sense of urgency, lending an air of dignity to the cause. 

There’s a memorable scene on the occasion of Marcus’s birthday – he beams a rare smile after Mason shaves his head for him (the residents are not allowed to handles razors themselves for obvious reasons) because now he can see that there are no longer visible bumps or scars on his scalp from the beatings he received from his mother.

It’s a touching, understated scene indicative of the surprising way in which this film manages to creep up on you.

Unknown ensemble shines
Despite the distraction of her youthful appearance among this teenage cast, Brie Larson as Grace delivers a soulful performance that successfully balances the right degree of damage and fragility against the character’s great reserves of humour and strength.

While the early scenes with Mason, such as one in which they cite their lack of sexual intercourse over the last nine days as evidence of their crumbling relationship (really?), are nauseatingly cute, there is sufficient chemistry for us to care and it’s impossible not to get swept up in the momentum of their relationship. 

There’s no big names here – only a well-chosen cast in an authentic drama that will, slowly but surely, charm you with its magic. Short Term 12 is cinema’s quiet surprise of 2014.

Short Term 12
Dir: Destin Daniel Cretton; US drama, 2013, 96 mins; Brie Larson, John Gallagher Jr, Kaitlyn Dever, Rami Malek, Keith Stanfield; Playing Nationwide

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