' ' Cinema Romantico: Short Term 12

Monday, February 17, 2014

Short Term 12

In keeping the circular theme of other notable 2013 films, the conclusion of “Short Term 12” mirrors the beginning, both scenes demonstrating a simultaneous cheerful and pragmatic resolve in its characters continuing to face the day. And even if the content of the scenes was not indicative of this resolve, it would be conveyed in the demeanor of Brie Larson, the remarkably natural and affecting lead actress who owns the film in spite of its overall winning nature. A face and a gait and posture can say so much, and Larson utilizes all three, effortlessly evoking the job's wear and tear, but also reminding of its inherent reward.

Larson’s character name, Grace, could have been symbolic overload. You think of grace and you think of comporting one’s self in a near regal manner, feet floating just above the sidewalk when strolling. Larson’s Grace, however, kind of plods, hunched over, as if she didn’t get enough sleep, which is wholly likely, and her tired eyes search from behind droopy bangs. That her mettle is constantly tested, and that she takes it on with such determination and caring patience means her name could have been, say, Bertha, and every review for this film would have still noted her grace. 

By any name, Grace is a twenty-something working at a foster care facility for troubled teenagers where the small staff asks that doors always stay open and secrets shared in an effort to talk them out. Well, it goes without saying that Grace has her own secrets, like a relationship on the sly with gregarious co-worker Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), a relationship that will arrive at a tipping point by film’s end. The screenplay provides a time marker in the form of Marcus, on the verge of turning 18 which means he must leave the facility behind. He is played by Keith Stanfield in a charged performance, one that employs rage to mask his fear in having to strike out on his own and to bely an impassioned nature. He has struggles, but he also has successes, and this is what “Short Term 12” effectively illustrates – how struggle and success goes hand in hand, and how swiftly it can switch.

Another at-risk kid is Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), the closed-off newcomer, who shares a volatile relationship with the father we never see, a relationship that proves similar to Grace’s own problematic upbringing. It becomes the film’s most vital pairing, even more so than Grace and Mason, and it is also the film’s foremost conundrum.

“Short Term 12”, meant to embody the messiness of life, the hairpin twists and turns, how things can be going one way, stop on a dime, and go the other way, is neatly aligned so that our protagonist is provided a mirror character in Jayden to helpfully allow for confrontation with herself. If Jayden has trouble with her father, so does Grace. If Jayden has a history of cutting herself, so does Grace. They match up perfectly, and so even though much of the film is about – paraphrasing Mason in admonishing Grace – letting other people in, this point-by-point similarity essentially negates the need for Grace to let anyone in when she’s more or less conversing with herself.

Yet it is Grace’s flaws that draw me most not only to the character, but to the movie itself. This is because Grace is not undone by some epic error in judgment, but by the sort of little mental foibles that have all added together in her twenty-some years to render her as willful as she is confused. She is there for her kids, even if she fails to always be there for herself and the people closest to her. There is always work to do, always a little sanding away that our emotional makeup may require, each life a work-in-progress than cannot be mended by a single motivational speech.

Perhaps at-risk kids are not supposed to see the pitfalls in their caretakers, but I wonder if it's reassuring for them to see Grace not always succeed and still be successful.


Dan said...

I'm in the process of writing about Short Term 12, and I also mentioned the great framing structure. I really liked this film. You're right to point out the importance in Grace having flaws. They're a key part of her character and allow her to be so good at her job. Of course, they also aren't good for her personal life. I was on the edge of my seat near the end and figured it might go off the rails. Thankfully, it never did.

Nick Prigge said...

I was waiting for it to go off the rails too - the movie and Grace. But she hung in there. And that's why I loved that circular framing so much, it just underscored that sort of heroic, day-by-day notion that I imagine must come with that job.