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Fostering Hope: Destin Daniel Cretton’s Short Term 12 (2013) – DVD review

February 27, 2014 by Simon Kinnear in At Home with 0 Comments

The damage is palpable but the hope is intoxicating in an American indie that bursts with tonal ambition and social awareness

Short Term 12
(Destin Daniel Cretton)

On the surface, it’s amazing that few films have really tackled the subject of foster care – a world where (at least in Hollywood speak) inspirational mentors meet with troubled kids, en route to a redemptive arc and a happy ever after. Yet, for those whose lives are wrenched apart by parental neglect or abuse, the damage isn’t always visible on the surface. Perhaps that’s why the topic remains largely uncharted territory for filmmakers, rather than risk making something that becomes either too bleak to bare, or too facile to bother with.

Destin Daniel Cretton’s expertly judged drama dares to probe the surface, and is warm and receptive enough to take the sweet with the sour. Mostly, it is the story of Grace (Brie Larson), supervisor at the titular facility and a beguiling blend of no-nonsense leadership and touchy-feely big sister – but as the title suggests, it is also about the children and Cretton’s script balances several other stories. It is, in essence, an inspirational teacher film, but one played at much higher stakes because the emphasis isn’t on education but on the kids’ safety – from themselves as much as from others.

The film’s masterstroke is to show that Grace has unresolved problems of her own. Yes, it’s a contrivance and you do wonder if that kind of mental fragility would make it past the recruitment process. Yet, combined with the revelation that her co-worker and boyfriend Mason is also a well-adjusted survivor of the foster system, the allegorical and dramatic implications override the pedantry of logic.

There’s an unshakeable hope and humanity in Cretton’s idea that the best people to help the kids are those who are only on the next step along – still young enough to relate (just about: even Grace’s memories of a Discman place a barrier between her and the iPod generation) and schooled at ground level rather than the ‘grad school’ difference of therapists. It’s a set-up that gives the film its mercurial tone – all fun and games until disaster strikes, at which point the raw emotions contain the risk that they’ll knock out Grace and her staff as well as the facility’s guests.

The tonal control is astounding.  This is a very funny film, with shades of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest in the easygoing yet latently volatile camaraderie of its ensemble, and you could imagine this running for years on TV as a kooky dramedy. Yet Cretton hears the lesson within the title and realises that cinema itself is best when it is short term.  Like the children, the film has to set some boundaries, and Cretton uses the story’s heart-on-sleeve sincerity as a battering ram to open up Grace’s own past.

This wouldn’t work with a lesser director, but Cretton is a real find. Any artifice lies entirely in the construction, meaning that the execution is vivid and spontaneous, especially with the fabulous Larson at the centre. Her gradual regression into sudden bursts of righteous rage or sullen withdrawal shows real range, especially as her default setting is such affability.

She’s matched by some quality turns from the children, who need to turn on a dime without any trace of actorliness. Two of the youngsters in particular are exceptional.  Kaitlyn Dever plays it aloof as a Thora Birch-style smartass but then commands the screen with a brutal meltdown, while the quiet, melancholic Keith Stanfield delivers one of the great raps in cinema – a one-take recital whose autobiographical content is mirrored in the coiled intensity of the actor’s performance.

Short Term 12 is released on Blu-ray and DVD on Monday 10th March.  Extras are limited to a short (term) making of and a trailer.  Sadly, a major opportunity has been missed by not including Cretton’s original, prize-winning short on which the feature version is based.

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