AT first, Grace, the name of the main character in the exceptional Short Term 12, seems to sum her up perfectly. Then, it seems ironic. Finally, her name represents the quality that best describes this tender film.
Grace supervises a halfway house for troubled teenagers. It's a tough job, combining the roles of friend, parent, teacher, warden and psychologist, all of which seem to come naturally to Grace (Brie Larson), even though she's just a few years older than many of her charges.
Initially, Short Term 12 feels like it's going to be a portrait of an almost superheroic young woman, but then we learn Grace, who has just discovered she's pregnant and who can't open up to her too-perfect boyfriend/co-worker (John Gallagher Jr.), may respond so well to the troubled youth in her care because she's more like them than anyone knows.
Part of what makes Short Term 12 unique is its specificity. It's not, "Here's a movie about a group home," but, "Here's a movie about a person who works in a group home and why she's there and what she and the young people who live there get from each other." It's a character-based film, and the characters ring so true you know writer/director Destin Cretton must have done a lot of quiet observation before he began to write.
Marcus, for instance, is about to turn 18, which means he will have to move out of the home. Quiet and volatile, Marcus is a heartbreaking character because actor Keith Stanfield conveys the confusion of a young person figuring out who he is and who's afraid of what he'll find. In part, he's fearful because the home has been a safe place for him, a haven from a world he describes in a painful rap that includes a lyric about "trying to live a life not knowing what a normal life feels like."
Grace has fascinating relationships with a new resident (Kaitlyn Dever), who, we quickly realize, reminds her of her younger self, and with a young boy whose inability to communicate his needs is not so different from Grace's.
There's a lot of pain and a little bit of tragedy in Short Term 12, but it's a surprisingly funny film and a hopeful one, too.
The ending may strike some as too optimistic about the power of untrained, underpaid young people to alter the lives of even younger people, but the movie's attention to detail earns it an optimistic finale.
Short Term 12 doesn't make huge promises that the characters will turn their lives around, but it does assert that these are lives worth saving. And by focusing on the characters' stories, it says the effort to understand their challenges and dreams is a pretty good place to start.
-- St. Paul Pioneer Press