Critic’s Pick: ‘Short Term 12′

Thelma Adams
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"Short Term 12" is as close to a Mumblecore afterschool special as you're going to get – and, surprisingly, that's no diss. Honest and earnest, the winner of the Grand Jury Award for best narrative feature at South By Southwest has modest ambitions: what is it like in a group home for distressed teens and their caregivers? Not unexpectedly, it’s an emotional rollercoaster, an unmarked battleground of small victories and razor-etched defeats.

The movie's fulcrum is Grace (Brie Larson), the empathetic young house-mama at a foster care facility for teens in relatively short-term care, hence the title. Larson (TV’s “United States of Tara”) stares with doe eyes into the headlights of a major career, the first big chick looking to break out of Mumblecore since Greta Gerwig. Larson owns the movie without makeup, her hair limp, crawling inside the skin of this young woman trying to be fearless for others despite the weight of her own fears.

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Grace isn't so many years older than her charges. On the side, she's sleeping with her sweetly schlubby co-worker Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) in a part crying for Paul Rudd in a bigger budgeted film. It slowly becomes clear that Grace's understanding of her kids in peril emerges from her own damaged past – a past that she has yet to fully integrate into her present relationship with Mason, and in setting boundaries for new angsty kid on the block, Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever).

In a shambling mode for an 80-minute feature, the drama circles around the ways in which damaged adults return to the scene of the crime as caregivers to damaged teens, for good and bad. If those in authority cannot entirely heal themselves, at least they can make it easier for the next generation, teasing out laughter, waiting out angry outbursts and getting the youths to make confessions that the adults may not even be able to articulate about their own lives.

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The film succeeds by its simple storytelling technique – no explosions, no sweeping music signaling emotional peaks, no big reveals. It’s just unsuperhumans, young and not-as-young, dragging themselves through a day structured within institutional green walls, hoping to scratch out some joy and ward off the shadow of loneliness.

Like the film itself, small victories should be rewarded. Not every battle is "World War Z."

Bottom Line: A small film about troubled teens with enormous heart.

Watch the Trailer for "Short Term 12"