Brie Larson’s Short Term 12 is more than just an unexpected delight, it has the potential to be the best independent film of 2013. It’s an outstanding little movie about the power of emotional processing, about dealing with psychological trauma, and about the ways in which we cope. It is dizzyingly sweet, immensely heart-achey and anchored by one of the most nuanced and beautifully subtle performances in a very long while. The only imperfect thing about Short Term 12, in fact, is its title.
The film comes from director Destin Cretton (I Am Not a Hipster), based on his own short film, and it centers around week long stretch at a foster care group home for troubled adolescents. Brie Larson plays Grace,a staff member at the facility. She’s also romantically involved with another of the caretakers, Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), and we discover early on that she’s pregnant. Her pregnancy in combination with a new intake, Jayden (Justified’s Kaitlyn Dever) — whose home life mirrors that of Grace’s childhood — opens up a series of psychic wounds that Grace had repressed for years, forcing her to contend with them while simultaneously navigating the troubles of the teenagers.
In other words, Short Term 12 is about a damaged woman taking care of damaged children, and while it’s her own traumatic childhood experiences that make Grace such an amazingly empathetic staff member, the experiences of those in her care are also triggering for Grace. The emotional traumas of the adolescents bleed into her own, causing her otherwise perfect relationship with her boyfriend is to unravel under the weight of her own dysfunction.
It really is a beautifully wistful film, and Brie Larson — an already likable, well-thought of actress for roles in 21 Jump Street and “United States of Tara” — turns in a performance that will blow the mindhole of the indie world. She is quietly commanding and serene, a damaged angel trying to rescue her flock. Her performance may be the most revelatory of 2013.
Despite the subject material, however, Short Term 12 is not a maudlin film. It is peopled with determined and hopeful characters, and there’s not an ounce of self-pity coursing through the narrative. It’s my favorite kind of film: Good people who want to do good things, and nothing but kindness, humor, and warmth seep out of every frame.
(Short Term 12 screened at the SXSW Film festival, where it won the award for best narrative feature.)