At this point, when it comes to making a film about child abuse, it’s difficult to find a new and interesting mode to tell the story. It’s a loaded proposition because it’s such a raw idea to so many people that it’s hard to not do it badly. There are so many pitfalls, and it seems like every TV movie version of the story falls into all of them at the same time. But in Short Term 12, writer-director Destin Cretton manages to skillfully step over all of them, delivering a delicate, quietly explosive new take.
Short Term 12 takes place in a dormitory-style temporary foster home for teenagers, where the counselors are short staffed and under-funded but deeply attuned to the kids’ needs — especially their emotional needs. The small band of counselors is led by Grace (Brie Larson), whose even-keeled exterior belies a past where she was one of these kids, and Mason (John Gallagher jr), who uses his breezy, older brother-like charm to make things feel as much like a family as possible. The film is full of determination to not let these kids fall through the cracks, but everything is against them, sometimes even the kids themselves, who mostly come from a place where they’ve just about given up.
In stepping over some of the thematic pitfalls, Cretton actually engages the biggest offender: the should-we-or-shouldn’t-we pregnancy. If the worst kept secret in the home is that Grace and Mason are dating, the best kept secret is Grace’s pregnancy. Even Mason doesn’t know.
In that sense, this is wholly Brie Larson’s picture. Everything hinges on her state of mind. Every actor that appears in the film is supporting her performance, but never once does she let them down. Going in, I’d really only seen Larson in her Emma Stone-esque turn in the 21 Jump Street reboot. I was skeptical that she could carry the whole film on her back, but it was unwarranted. She is another actor entirely in Short Term 12. She is vulnerable yet shut off, entirely relatable but distant. It would be difficult to know her, but you can’t help having that feeling you do.
It’s an easy thing to use babies in film as a melodramatic thrust to gloss over the flaws in a story, but Cretton has sneakily thrown his middle finger in the air made the entire film about this decision. In a twist, he leverages Grace’s fear of her abusive childhood — and seeing all of the hurt in her kids’ eyes ever day at the home — against her in this decision. In a way, the film is set up as a test of Grace’s faith in humanity, even in herself. It’s more of a question if she will even look for not, not whether she will find it. It is, basically, a feature length trust fall. Mason will be there, but will she fall?