Every once and a while a film comes along where everything clicks, where the problems aren’t glaring, where the people in the film feel real, and halfway through, you notice that, subconsciously, you’ve been invested in nothing but what’s happening on the screen the entire runtime. You’ve eaten your popcorn, but you don’t remember doing so. Your eyes were glued to the screen. When the final frame of Short Term 12 cut to black, I silently took a deep breath and exhaled. I realized I had been on an emotional rollercoaster ride. I also realized I had seen one of the most moving films to ever be released in my lifetime. Short Term 12 follows Grace, who works at a temporary housing center for underprivileged and neglected children called Short Term 12 along with her boyfriend and a couple others who strive everyday to deal with these emotional and sometimes difficult kids.
The cast of Short Term 12 hits every beat right in the fact that it doesn’t feel like they’re acting. All the performances feel natural and raw and strike with true emotion, transcending to the point where not only do the performances feel real, but the actors have become the characters themselves, and in that, the characters have become real too. Watching these characters is to care about them, and by the end of this film, there’s not a single character you don’t care about. You even feel for the smaller characters because writer/director Destin Cretton creates and crafts such beautiful moments for each of them. Brie Larson, previously seen as Jonah Hill’s love interest in 21 Jump Street, gives a career-making performance here, one with emotional depth and rawness that strikes with fierce emotion and complexity. Equally good is John Gallagher Jr., who’s likable and compassionate, and overall, a great character. The young cast knocks it out of the park too, sliding into their troubled roles with grace and realness that you don’t often see from younger actors.
What’s so beautiful about Short Term 12 is the story Destin Cretton is able to seamlessly lay out to you. It spans not a long time frame and goes through emotional arcs for several characters and in that way, it feels like the study of a community, almost like a documentary. Sure, there are dramatic moments and tense scenes, but none of them feel “melodramatic”, allowing for an atmosphere that is expertly shot so that it feels real. The plot moves along nicely, chugging at a pace that allows us to breathe and relish in the more emotional moments, where even a curse-laden rap can give you the chills and maybe even make you want to tear up a bit. Destin Cretton doesn’t toy with your emotions, he shows you the dark, brutal truth of the situation, handles it with grace, and allows you to deal with it. He doesn’t dance around things, and he certainly doesn’t back away from what hits the heart. And in the end, that’s to the film’s great benefit, as Short Term 12 turns out to be the year’s most emotionally affecting, mesmerizing drama.
From a technical standpoint, the film soars with a wonderful “indie” score and raw, engrossing cinematography. The dialogue is strong, proof that behind all the poignant, emotional direction is an even stronger script that serves as the basis for this incredible drama. Short Term 12 is a journey, the kind of journey where the trek is just as emotionally powerful and brutally real as the destination. It’s a testament to how magical a film can be when all you have is a few characters and a place. No special effects. Nothing but raw, true emotions. And when that’s magical, that’s just a testament to what film can do.
FINAL GRADE: 10/10
FINAL SAY: Short Term 12 is an incredible journey, one filled by a great screenplay, wonderful direction, and beautiful performances. It’s raw and emotional, and also the best film of 2013 so far.