It’s too early in Destin Daniel Cretton’s career to call Short Term 12 his best film, though it’s easy to believe that it will always be his truest, purest, and most sincere.
Set at a group home for at-risk teens, the film is based on Cretton’s own time working in a similar facility for two years, with many of the stories coming from things that he witnessed or heard from others. And while it was that experience that shaped the film’s narrative, it was Cretton’s background in documentary filmmaking that shaped its style, giving it a natural, lived-in look that creates a sense of true presence for the viewer, as if we’re standing invisible next to people in the act of being vulnerable. Add to that, this wasn’t Cretton’s first time telling this story. His first pass at the material resulted in a short film (also called Short Term 12) that won the Sundance Film Festival’s jury prize in short filmmaking; this longer, more assured version won the narrative competition at South by Southwest. It’s those twin inspirations from real life—the facility and the documentary—that let Cretton blur the line here between fiction and nonfiction, creating a narrative that feels as authentic as a home movie. He’s made something that feels like it could only have come from himself, and only at that moment in time. How lucky are the artists who can say that.
The movie’s biggest weapon is its cast. Filmed in the fall of 2012 and released the following spring, the film benefits from a packed roster of up-and-coming actors who have since become famous (some incredibly so) for other work, which makes revisiting the film now a little surreal. The main character, a staff facility member named Grace, is played by Brie Larson; she’s just two years away from her Oscar for Room here, and only six from having her own action figure. There’s Stephanie Beatriz playing another staff member, months before the debut of Brooklyn Nine-Nine. The new guy on the staff is played by Rami Malek, just two years away from Mr. Robot and five years from his own Oscar. Grace’s boyfriend, Mason, is played by Tony Award winner John Gallagher Jr., a gifted actor who feels real in every role he takes. And among the kids in the facility? There’s Kaitlyn Dever, not quite 16 at the time of filming, whose work here and on Justified would lead to things like Booksmart. And there’s LaKeith Stanfield (here credited as Keith) in his first feature role ever, giving the kind of layered performance that would make his eventual Oscar nomination for Judas and the Black Messiah seem like destiny.
Stanfield’s real-life story might be my favorite here. He’d appeared in the short film version, but according to Cretton, had then become burned-out by Hollywood and had dropped his agents and managers. He didn’t even have a cell phone, and Cretton had to email several people just to track Stanfield down and persuade him to be in the feature. It’s one of those little quirks of fate that you almost can’t believe, especially when you see Stanfield’s work in the movie. He plays a kid named Marcus who’s about to turn 18 and “age out” of the facility, and who’s wrestling with the sharp emotions that come with that. (Stanfield was just 21 at filming.) In one of the film’s many powerhouse scenes, Marcus performs a rap that gives vent to his anger, confusion, frustration, and loneliness, and Stanfield’s performance is so natural, so raw, so genuinely empathetic that you almost can’t bear to look at the screen.
Larson’s work, too, is almost otherworldly. She’d been acting for years already, but you can see her summoning and focusing her energy in every scene here, making Grace thrum with a mix of anxiety and passion, love and worry. Grace is a classic study in self-destructive contradictions—at the beginning of the film, she tells the new staffer, “Remember, you’re not their parent, and you’re not their therapist,” before setting out to become a substitute parent and therapist for Jayden (Dever)—and Larson creates a character that’s prickly, wounded, and yearning for something better.
There’s a simple plot to the movie that charts Grace’s relationship with Mason as she endeavors to help Jayden deal with an abusive past that mirrors Grace’s own, but it’s only as present as necessary. In other words, the movie isn’t about some big high-stakes question that drives everything else, but more about the gradual, purposeful work that people do to build connections with each other or with the world around them. One of the ways Cretton foregrounds this point is by opening and closing the movie with scenes of the staffers standing around outside the facility in the morning, telling stories before clocking in for the day. The opening scene is the chance for Malek’s character to introduce himself as the new employee, and you could see how a more rote, predictable movie would make that the plot or at least the bookend (with the final scene having Malek’s character move on, or greet the next new hire, etc.). But that doesn’t happen here. Instead, the closing conversation offers glimpses of how some of the kids can survive after their time in the facility while the staffers stay behind to take care of the next group, watching over the facility, guarding it, trying to shepherd the children as best they can for the brief time they know them. The result is that the film breathes life into the care facility and brings you into the whole world there before gently letting you go: different than you were when you came in, always thinking back to what you saw there.