In recent years Hollywood has been the land of superhero films, special effects extravaganzas, and star-studded drama. It all fits into the mold of this industry personified by sun-soaked beaches joined with excessive glitz and glam.Go down the California coast to San Diego and you find a slightly more humble, but still highly prevalent affluent beach culture. Look no further than La Jolla and that reality is extremely evident. That’s part of what makes Daniel Destin Cretton’s film so credible. It’s not like that. But it’s important to start from the beginning to understand why that is.
Cretton, who is originally from Hawaii, came to San Diego in order to attend Point Loma Nazarene, one of these pristine waterfront getaways that also doubles as a school. Afterwards, he went through film school at San Diego State. However, in between his two stints in school, he spent some time working as staff for a short-term home for teens. It proved to be a formative experience and the jumping off point for Short Term 12.
It began as a short film for Cretton’s Master’s thesis, but with the proper funding, he turned his modest work into a full-fledged feature project. However, this is far from your typical Hollywood production and it undercuts the typical San Diego persona. Instead, this story literally bleeds with humanity flooding out of its veins like no other. In other words, it’s not your high-brow epic. It’s truthful, gritty, and inherently real. The facility pictured here feels like a more typical San Diego, depressed, humble, and full of people fighting against the currents of life.
These characters are not caricatures, but reflections of people who could very easily be real. Headlining the modest cast is Brie Larson, who is on the rise with a few more mainstream roles on the horizon. With Grace, she channels a spirit that is so affecting in a raw, visceral way. She is the catalyst of the workers who are meant to be a stabilizing force on the kids in their care. Day in and day out they must deal with angry outbursts, insubordination, and sometimes worse. It’s a difficult job, to put it lightly, and yet Grace does the work dutifully with an unfaltering mix of tough love and compassion.
These kids often come from the worst of family background including abuse. Grace was one of those kids herself and now she helps others with a group of staff including her partner and best friend Mason. In essence, she is their friend and champion, but behind this facade lies a girl — timid and scared. Not ready to let others in after she so readily enters into the lives of others.
The kids are a big part of this story as they deal with their baggage, but first and foremost Short Term 12 is the story of Grace. The story of how she finally learns to open up her life, to confront the pain, and allow herself to be vulnerable with the one she loves.
In so many of these characters, there are a multitude of emotions that brew in isolation. So much is pent up inside and so much goes unspoken. It’s barely hidden under the surface but always written on faces and in averted gazes. This is not a pretty film and it should not be because life rarely is the perfect portrait that movies often seem to paint. Drama is not dazzling theatricality; it’s dirty and low, besmirching all that it touches. There’s so much loneliness to be parsed through, in the adults and adolescents alike, before problems can be resolved. They are never made perfect, but the film leaves these people better than when they started. Life goes on much as it had before, and a great deal of hope is unearthed beneath all the debris. So though it might not be pretty, it is unmistakably beautiful.
The director’s unsteady handheld camera feels a little abrasive at times, but also brutally honest, spending a great deal of time on close-ups. Cretton’s script is relatively simple, still, it continually brims with harsh realities and little moments that feel terribly human. It might be Grace sitting solemnly in an abortion clinic, the brooding Marcus throwing down a heartfelt rap, or Jayden illustrating her pain through the story of an armless octopus. The minutiae work marvelously, collectively making these into people who we can truly feel for.
Many might vehemently disagree, but Short Term 12 seems to prove that all a film needs is a grain of truth mixed with some authentic humanity to be engaging. That is far more gratifying than any amount of special effects or explosions that Hollywood can manage to throw up on to the screen. Unfortunately this is a criminally underseen film and hopefully, Netflix might help change that. But if not it will take individuals championing lost clauses just like the workers in this story. They never gave up on these kids and they were willing to go the whole nine yards when everyone else had forgotten. Please do yourself a favor and do not forget Short Term 12. I certainly won’t be forgetting it anytime soon.