Saturday 18 July 2020

From the archive: "Short Term 12"

At first glance, Short Term 12 - a SXSW-approved breakthrough feature from the Hawaiian-born writer-director Destin Cretton - seems to gesture back towards the founding principles of the 1990s independent scene: you see it in the film's quiet attention to place, and to those marginalised lives playing out there. In this instance, the focus is on the teenage residents of a nondescript care home, and the twenty- or thirtysomethings drafted in to serve as mentors or guardians, big brothers and sisters, barely past the age of pimple-popping themselves yet obliged to occupy positions of immense responsibility. Cretton favours the slow drip of information. Though there are isolated episodes of acting up, much of the movie unfolds on becalmed, sleepy afternoons where there's nothing for these kids to do save hang out in one dorm room or another and open up to whoever's around about how they got here and how they're now feeling. The carers' energies are most keenly expended on Marcus (LaKeith Stanfield), a brooding 18-year-old gifted with mad rap skills yet quick to temper, and self-harming newcomer Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), yet it's equally clear their makeshift custodians have stories to tell and scars to show for themselves: the pressure gets too much for embedded power couple Grace and Mason (Brie Larson and John Gallagher Jr.) when they learn they're expecting a child of their own together.

This material had its origins in Cretton's 2008 short, and the attenuated storytelling arguably speaks more to the attempt to spin that short into a feature proper than it does to the arduous processes of therapy. On the latter front, the film betrays a major hang-up on that very American idea of closure, and you feel it remoulding all its constituent traumas for neat, tidy conclusions; a final, audience-pleasing act of release is at once the quickest the film's pulse races, and its least convincing aspect. The filmmaker Cretton most resembles at this stage is James Mangold, who went over the course of a decade or so from the nicely atmospheric, ambivalent Heavy to the soapy care-home melodramatics of Girl, Interrupted and thence to making Tom Cruise and Wolverine movies: he's a work in progress. That Short Term 12 nevertheless retains a certain fragile promise is chiefly down to its excellent cast - particularly the funny, sympathetic Larson, here getting a deserved bump from supporting to lead status, and the very convincing Dever, who does something heartrending with a self-penned children's fable that speaks to Jayden's unhappy experiences. The last-reel reappearance of Melora Walters as a therapist, meanwhile, looks like a knowing nod back to that late-Nineties ur-text Magnolia - but that worldlier, stragglier three-hour opus knew slightly better than Cretton how much hard work forgiveness can be, and that it takes all the effort in the world to put a smile on some people's faces.

(November 2013)

Short Term 12 screens on BBC1 tonight at 11.55pm.

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