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Mutual wounds

Destin Cretton’s award-winning Sundance short film, Short Term 12, gets a feature-length expansion.
Destin Cretton’s award-winning Sundance short film, Short Term 12, gets a feature-length expansion.

In Dante’s Inferno, the sign over the gates of Hell reads, “Abandon all hope ye who enter here.” If there were a similar sign over the doors of the short-term foster-care facility depicted in writer-director Destin Cretton’s Short Term 12, it would read, “Everybody’s broken and nothing lasts forever.” Still on the downbeat side, but much more hopeful — and helpful.

Movie

Short Term 12 ***

thumbnail

The blind may not be so hot at leading the blind, but the damaged may be in a unique position to repair the damaged in writer-director Destin Cretton's feature-length adaptation of his Sundance short. This version tells the story of Grace, a young woman (Brie Larson) working in a short-term foster-care facility. Grace is having dual familial crises, and her issues are mirrored in the kids under her care. One is terrified at the prospect of aging out of the under-18 facility — moving on, moving forward, making a life. Another is terrified of confronting the past (which, as Faulkner noted, isn't dead, or even past). Perhaps the film's strongest point is how it gets the emotional atmosphere of the place. It's nearly impossible to establish community among a group of messed-up, semi-institutionalized strangers who know they're bound for moving on — and yet it's also essential. Cretton lets his teens be teens and mostly keeps the dialogue from veering into the speechy or sentimental — a neat trick on such an emotional ride.

Find showtimes

The story is small-scale: Grace, a young supervisor at the facility, goes through the sort of personal crisis that a young woman with a live-in boyfriend might go through. The crisis is heightened by her own brokenness — there’s a reason Grace has gotten a job watching over damaged kids. (Her boyfriend, a coworker and comparative rock of stability, was one of the impossibly lucky ones: a foster kid taken in by a generous and self-sacrificing couple.)

What gives Grace’s very personal and under-some-circumstances ordinary story a broader depth and resonance is the way her struggles are mirrored in the lives of those in her care. She is terrified of moving into a new stage of life, full of increased responsibility and even more increased risk. We see that same terror in Marcus, a young black man about to age out of the under-18 facility. (His quietly enraged and accusatory rap, performed for Mason after a violent outburst, is possibly the most moving moment in a movie full of them.) And why is Grace terrified? Because she’s got Daddy issues — just like new arrival Jayden. Everybody may be broken, says Short Term 12, but in the best-case scenario, mutual wounds can lead to mutual healing.

Cretton knows that his subject matter is tough, and so he leavens the drama with bits of broad humor — a clumsy new employee announcing to the group that he’s always wanted to work with underprivileged kids, a breakout attempt aided by a superhero cape. But mostly, he lets his characters be people, albeit extreme people. (You believe it when Jayden’s cool and uncaring exterior gives way to shrieking, destructive rage.) And if his ending feels maybe a tad too hopeful — well, he’s already put Grace & Co. through a kind of hell, and like the sign says, nothing lasts forever.

Brie Larson heads a remarkably assured cast as Grace, and Cretton does a fine job with dialogue that could easily have strayed into inspiration-speak and melodrama. I do wish his camera had been as steady as his storytelling, but I’ll let Mr. Marks take that up in the interview.

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Destin Cretton’s award-winning Sundance short film, Short Term 12, gets a feature-length expansion.
Destin Cretton’s award-winning Sundance short film, Short Term 12, gets a feature-length expansion.

In Dante’s Inferno, the sign over the gates of Hell reads, “Abandon all hope ye who enter here.” If there were a similar sign over the doors of the short-term foster-care facility depicted in writer-director Destin Cretton’s Short Term 12, it would read, “Everybody’s broken and nothing lasts forever.” Still on the downbeat side, but much more hopeful — and helpful.

Movie

Short Term 12 ***

thumbnail

The blind may not be so hot at leading the blind, but the damaged may be in a unique position to repair the damaged in writer-director Destin Cretton's feature-length adaptation of his Sundance short. This version tells the story of Grace, a young woman (Brie Larson) working in a short-term foster-care facility. Grace is having dual familial crises, and her issues are mirrored in the kids under her care. One is terrified at the prospect of aging out of the under-18 facility — moving on, moving forward, making a life. Another is terrified of confronting the past (which, as Faulkner noted, isn't dead, or even past). Perhaps the film's strongest point is how it gets the emotional atmosphere of the place. It's nearly impossible to establish community among a group of messed-up, semi-institutionalized strangers who know they're bound for moving on — and yet it's also essential. Cretton lets his teens be teens and mostly keeps the dialogue from veering into the speechy or sentimental — a neat trick on such an emotional ride.

Find showtimes

The story is small-scale: Grace, a young supervisor at the facility, goes through the sort of personal crisis that a young woman with a live-in boyfriend might go through. The crisis is heightened by her own brokenness — there’s a reason Grace has gotten a job watching over damaged kids. (Her boyfriend, a coworker and comparative rock of stability, was one of the impossibly lucky ones: a foster kid taken in by a generous and self-sacrificing couple.)

What gives Grace’s very personal and under-some-circumstances ordinary story a broader depth and resonance is the way her struggles are mirrored in the lives of those in her care. She is terrified of moving into a new stage of life, full of increased responsibility and even more increased risk. We see that same terror in Marcus, a young black man about to age out of the under-18 facility. (His quietly enraged and accusatory rap, performed for Mason after a violent outburst, is possibly the most moving moment in a movie full of them.) And why is Grace terrified? Because she’s got Daddy issues — just like new arrival Jayden. Everybody may be broken, says Short Term 12, but in the best-case scenario, mutual wounds can lead to mutual healing.

Cretton knows that his subject matter is tough, and so he leavens the drama with bits of broad humor — a clumsy new employee announcing to the group that he’s always wanted to work with underprivileged kids, a breakout attempt aided by a superhero cape. But mostly, he lets his characters be people, albeit extreme people. (You believe it when Jayden’s cool and uncaring exterior gives way to shrieking, destructive rage.) And if his ending feels maybe a tad too hopeful — well, he’s already put Grace & Co. through a kind of hell, and like the sign says, nothing lasts forever.

Brie Larson heads a remarkably assured cast as Grace, and Cretton does a fine job with dialogue that could easily have strayed into inspiration-speak and melodrama. I do wish his camera had been as steady as his storytelling, but I’ll let Mr. Marks take that up in the interview.

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Comments
2

I've heard that Dante's "Inferno" is the prime reason people believe that Hell is in one place.

Sept. 11, 2013

You must be thinking of the Spencer Tracy version.

Sept. 11, 2013

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