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'Short Term 12' review: A small film with a big heart

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Released on Friday, Nov 1 2013

Director: Destin Cretton; Screenwriter: Destin Cretton; Starring: Brie Larson, Frantz Turner, John Gallagher Jr, Kaitlyn Dever; Running time: 97 mins; Certificate: 15


A small film with a big heart, Short Term 12 delves into the lives of kids and their twentysomething carers at a short-term foster home. There are no star names here but there are star turns, most notably from Brie Larson as one of the staffers, Grace.

Grace is a bit of a kid herself who uses a water gun to get the kids out of bed in the morning. At the same time she also has a great sense of responsibility, but that burden weighs heavier when she finds out she is pregnant and it may be too much for her to bear. She keeps it a secret, even from her boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher Jr) who works alongside her at the home.

The reasons for this become apparent very gradually, but it clearly has something to do with Grace's own childhood which she also refuses to talk about with Mason. The push-and-pull of their relationship becomes central to the story, with Mason trying hard to get Grace to open up and he makes the point that she should practice what she preaches.

Brie Larson in Short Term 12
So many unresolved issues mean that, eventually, Grace begins to crack and roles are reversed with one of her young charges having to talk her down from a reckless act. Larson could have gone even further, delivering the sort of showboating performance that won Angelina Jolie an Oscar for Girl, Interrupted. Instead, it's her inability to really 'let go' that is so affecting.

It isn't all tears at bedtime, though. Making his feature debut, writer/director Destin Cretton has a good feel for the banter that makes the daily tribulations a little easier to take. He's generous to his actors as well, taking various points of view in a fly-on-the-wall approach to make sure that all voices are heard - even if they don't feel like talking.

Young actor Keith Stanfield has one of the more dramatic threads as a teenager who is about to be released from care and is reticent about what waits for him back in the old neighbourhood. His tales from the ghetto may sound like a cliché, but there's truthfulness in his performance as he turns to rap to try and exorcise those demons.

The other child actors, too, bring a natural, raw energy to the film that comes from, perhaps, feeling self-conscious in front of the camera. They're all a bit cagey, as any child would be if they felt they had something to hide. Telling details about the kids – and especially, the grownups – emerge in surprising ways, so the film never feels predictable.

Pressure builds quietly, but sudden bursts of emotion and violence aren't signposted by the usual cinematic tricks – the meaningful looks, or lingering close-ups on flashing blades. Instead, tension comes from knowing that you might miss the signs leading up to a crisis and this may be the most important point Cretton makes about the stress of working in child protection.

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