Destin Cretton leaves quite an impression with the devastating Short Term 12, a movie that should also qualify him as a cardiologist for all its heart-rending drama. Based on Cretton’s experiences working in a group foster care facility, it’s the type of film that puts you back together only after smashing you into pieces a good three or four times. The heroine is Grace (a magnificent Brie Larson), who supervises the day-to-day activities of a diverse group of foster kids alongside her boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher Jr.). Their relationship remains surreptitious, however, as their jobs require them to project a level of hard-earned authority that’s only complicated if they allow their vulnerabilities too far out in the open: “You kind of have to be an asshole before you can be their friend,” Grace instructs a new employee. You can see how these relationships are fraught with emotional complexity. Grace is not technically a foster parent, but for all the time she spends with these kids, she’s also more than a case worker.
Short Term 12 unfolds in bursts of blazing emotion, a tapestry of heartache and humor, of small victories and major setbacks. The character-driven action wouldn’t work without the committed, courageous cast assembled by Cretton to play the foster children. His attention settles on a pair of the most troubled kids: Marcus (Keith Stanfield), a poetic African-American teen with anger issues, and Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), a cutter who wears sarcasm as a suit of armor. Each of the characters is observed with deep understanding and rarely stumble into cliché or stereotype, the major exception being the foster care administration that stands as a one-dimensional obstacle in a movie that already sets up plenty of challenges. That being said, Short Term 12 is far from an educational tract. It’s an experiential drama, and one that’s directed with the comforting assurance of its creator’s convictions.
What’s truly surprising is how funny Short Term 12 is. Cretton can send the movie soaring seemingly at will, a testament to how expertly the writer-director mixes humor with pathos. Carried by a moving performance from Larson, the movie clearly wears the “tearjerker” label as a badge of honor, though it’s also more nuanced than that term implies. The way Grace and Mason juggle multiple crises at work – as well as developments in their personal lives – raises questions about how their lives came to be defined by their ersatz parenthood, a through-line that has a major impact on the fates of their foster children. It also parallels the film’s message about the necessity of living an examined life and how accepting help is often a prerequisite for helping others. Cretton manages all this with a winning sincerity. He’s crafted an emotionally potent and satisfying film that grounds its biggest moments in the most ordinary kindnesses, suggesting that there’s nothing more noble than caring for another human being.