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Review

SHORT TERM 12 Review: When the Helpers Need Help

The staff of a small group home for troubled teenagers provides valuable assistance to their young charges, but they’ve got problems of their own in Short Term 12, a powerful new film from writer-director Destin Cretton. Filmed in a documentary style that suggests the institutional portraits of director Frederick Wiseman, Short Term 12 packs a real punch without resorting to hysterics or exploitation.

ST12-25Grace (Brie Larson) runs Short Term 12 with a loving, but firm grasp; her young charges have varying degrees of psychological issues and abusive backgrounds, but the home operates in a way that provides the structure and discipline that many of the kids clearly crave. She’s carrying on a not-so-secret romance with co-worker Mason (John Gallagher Jr. of HBO’s The Newsroom), although it quickly becomes apparent that issues from her own troubled past are weighing upon her; she’s pregnant with his child but doesn’t trust herself to raise it well.

The plot points here are small but effective —resident Marcus (Keith Stanfield) fears going out into the real world upon his impending 18th birthday. New arrival Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) hides her many insecurities behind a mask of attitude. New employee Nate (Rami Malek, The Master) has a knack for doing and saying the wrong thing at the wrong time.

As these stories weave together, we learn more about what drove Grace and Mason into this kind of work; she clearly prefers helping others navigate their problems to exploring her own, while he was raised by loving foster parents and obviously wants to pay it forward to the next generation of kids in need.

There are any number of ways that Cretton (whose best known previous film was 2012’s I Am Not a Hipster) could have made this material precious or sentimental, but he honors the story by forcing us to come to the characters rather than by underlining everything with close-ups and obvious musical cues. I left Short Term 12 happy that I’d gotten to know these people and wanting to spend more time with them, just to enjoy their company and to make sure that everything turned out OK for them.

This is a movie that snuck up on me without a lot of advance buzz, but it’s one of my favorites of the year so far.

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