Movie review: Short Term 12

Sometimes, you just need a good movie.

It’s true.  Sometimes, just watching a really good movie can help.

Short Term 12 is the ultimate low budget independent movie.  It won all sorts of awards at SxSW, the great independent festival in Austin.  It can’t have cost much to make.  The acting is tremendous, but I’ll bet you’ve not heard of most of the actors.  But it’s such a lovely movie, smart and kind and compassionate and real and true. It’s at 99% positive on, and deserves it. It’s on Netflix; check it out.

Brie Larson stars as Grace, who runs a short term facility for really troubled kids.  One co-worker there is Mason, played by John Gallagher Jr., who plays Emily Watson’s assistant on The Newsroom.  Grace is astonishingly good at her job, incredibly empathetic and caring.  She seems to know when kids need discipline and when they need to be left alone, to work things out.  She’s funny and smart and kind, and Mason is very nearly her equal.  Together, you know they’re making an incredible difference in the lives of the 12-15 kids who live in their facility. It’s a real home, a refuge, with rules and expectations that the kids (mostly) live up to.

Grace is also a seriously messed up young lady.  When a very troubled teenage girl, Jayden, shows up, Grace takes a particular interest in her, because she recognizes a lot of her own life in Jayden.  (Jayden, by the way, is played by the amazing Kaitlyn Dever, who was so great as runaway teen on Justified).  And as Grace works with Jayden, we get glimpses into her own troubled past, which includes sexual abuse from her father.  We learn that Grace testified against her Dad, that he’s now in prison for it, but that he’s soon eligible for parole, and that knowledge throws her into a real tailspin.

Mason and Grace are also lovers, and Grace learns early in the movie that she’s pregnant.  When Mason learns of this, he’s great with it, proposes marriage, insists that the two of them are going to be terrific parents.  But the combination of Jayden’s problems, Grace’s own past, her father’s impending prison release all cause her to start to lose it.

I’m not going to give away the ending, except to say that it’s wonderfully life-affirming and yet utterly grounded in the reality of the characters.  At the movie’s end, I was just stunned.  Took a deep breath, wiped away a few tears.  And tried to think of something nice I could do for other people.

Okay, I suppose I should give a content warning.  The movie’s rated R, because messed up teenagers use messed up language; it’s a trifle F-bomb intensive.  And it’s disturbing to see great looking kids, kids we care about and wish well, coping with really serious issues and problems.  Kids should get to be kids.  Kids shouldn’t have to deal with the kinds of abuse that kids, in the real world, regularly have to deal with.  But it’s also a movie that says that help is available.  It’s a movie that says that genuinely kind, but badly overworked, flawed and imperfect people are out there, fighting every day, making a difference.  Human goodness is possible.

So at the end of a day that was actually kind of discouraging, this was the movie to see.  This was the right one.  I know the title’s not good, and I know that you’ve never heard of the actors, and I know there’s bad language.  But this is a genuinely great movie, a work of art that also manages to be a mitzvah, a virtuous act.  Sometimes this happens,for art to become testimony, for testimony to be life-changing. Short Term 12, made for pennies, pulls of that miracle.

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