It all might be easier if you just didn’t care. When you’re removed from a situation and people become statistics or faceless others, it’s hard to truly be invested. In an age when there seems to be no shortage of atrocities, injustices, and impending perils, the ability to filter out these soul crushing events might be a necessity to live a normal life, to not just lie in a puddle of your blankets and bemoan the current state of things. But then, what would be the point? Deprived of emotional investment, you would avoid those devastations, but you’d also deny yourself the surging rush you get from being in love or sharing a victory, no matter how small. It’s both logical and unfortunate that those who are most caring, most willing to give their love and support to others, are often the most prone to being hurt. Moving without being manipulative, Short Term 12 examines this power and painful price of empathy.
Grace (Brie Larson) works at the titular group care home for kids under eighteen who are there for a variety of reasons, none of which are pleasant. She navigates the choppy waters of traumatized adolescents with the aid of a sparse staff, including her boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher, Jr.). A new caretaker (Rami Malek) watches, wide-eyed and awkward, as his coworkers struggle to help emotionally scarred kids that are more a danger to themselves than others. Also adding to this slow boil of exposed nerves is new resident Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), a sarcastic teenaged cutter that reminds Grace all too much of her own scarred history (both literal and figurative).
There’s not too much in terms of plot in Short Term 12; there are various arcs that characters undergo, and there’s certainly a narrative progression, but not much happens. Which is kind of the point. These are simply the lives of these workers; melodramatic overtures that might befit some films are here replaced with their daily routines. There’s not a breakthrough moment when therapy cures everything; that climactic catharsis is supplanted by a very natural portrait of the courage of people dealing with these raw emotions every day.
Writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton captures the fragile balance that has to be struck by these workers, not only when dealing with kids in precarious positions but also internally, between caring and letting their concerns consume them. His script piles problems upon problems on Grace, but it feels like the very real hazards of being this person, not the result of dramatic trickery. The authenticity that Cretton brings from his experiences working at group care homes is prevalent in the characters’ actions and dialogue. There’s an honest-to-god rapping scene in the movie, which should be clichéd and strained, but instead it seems to come from such a truthful place that its power transcends its own passé trappings. That scene, like the rest of the film, is poignantly captured by handheld cameras that occasionally shift and move, always beautifully framing the scenes while simultaneously seeming a bit unstable.
While the dialogue is well-written and Short Term 12 is great to look at, it’s the performances that truly power this film. Larson is simply amazing in her role of Grace, the cool worker that understands these kids’ pain because of her own. She and Gallagher, also doing great work here, have an effortless banter that seems lived in: when they argue, it feels like they are revisiting an argument; when they flirt, it feels like an inside joke that we’re lucky enough to witness. Dever plays her role impeccably as the smartass teenager that is so used to throwing up walls and pushing buttons that she is genuinely surprised when Grace makes it past her defenses.
This film isn’t a dour look at the lives of the fucked up. Short Term 12 is a celebration of the power of caring about someone else, showing how even though the price of vulnerability may be high, the payoff can be so sweet. To reveal the true impact that Grace and her coworkers have on these kids, Cretton knows you have to show the toll this work can take. It might be easier not to care, but, as Short Term 12 effectively argues, it certainly wouldn’t be worth it.