Short Term 12

17 Sep

I’m surprised at how much I enjoyed Short Term 12. I had heard a few good things about it, but I went in with trepidation. A movie about teenagers in an institutional setting has a high probability of feel-good substancelessness. I’m thinking of It’s Kind of a Funny Story from a couple years ago. That one started out with a lot of promise and devolved into trite stupidity. This is a syndrome that afflicts many, maybe even most, indie dramas, regardless of setting, but involving teenagers adds a higher level of risk. Not to say that this movie doesn’t have problems, or even that it escapes the neat ending/every character ends the movie with hope and bright prospects problem, but there were enough things to like that I’m willing to overlook some of the shortcuts and easy answers in the storytelling.

I don’t think I even want to talk more about the plot. Its broad ideas aren’t new or especially interesting. The movie mostly succeeds because of the characters and acting performances. Brie Larson and Kaitlyn Dever were the center of the movie for me. I don’t want to short John Gallagher Jr, but his scenes with Ms. Larson weren’t nearly as compelling as those with Ms. Dever. The two of them recently co-starred in The Spectacular Now, and I think they played friends or classmates maybe? I’ll be honest, I didn’t realize that until I checked imdb after the fact. I didn’t recognize either of them from The Spectacular Now. But they had a kind of easy chemistry that made the two of them together stand out.

Special kudos to the producers for casting Ms. Dever. She’s playing sixteenish, and she looks like she might actually be sixteenish in real life. It’s the kind of role that usually goes to someone in their twenties, which gets more ridiculous every time I go to the theater.

The best performance was definitely Brie Larson as Grace. I thought this was going to be more of an ensemble piece or mostly a romance, but she was the focus, and she was more than able to hold things together. Again, maybe I’m shorting John Gallagher Jr playing her boyfriend, but after several days, it’s her that I remember. Even in the late stages, when the script threatens to go off the rails, she kept things believable. There were a couple of moments where things could have really gone over the top (the confrontation with her boss in particular) and a couple of poor line readings could have made it all seem ridiculous. So, I was impressed with her.

One thing that confused me a little was the specifics of the setting. At the beginning it seems to be a DCFS/foster care kind of situation, but later on it feels like there’s a much heavier psychiatric influence. That was left pretty muddy, and it was kind of distracting.

Another script problem. This character Nate might as well have been named Exposition. I felt sorry for the actor playing him. And again, distracting. It would have been better to open the movie with the staff giving someone a building tour and just explaining everything that way. Get it all out of the way and then let your characters be part of the story.

I don’t know if this was the intent or not, but I felt very nervous about Grace’s baby throughout the whole thing. She schedules an abortion, then after she tells Mason she seems more ambivalent. All the while she’s running around with these wild kids. I thought they were setting it up for her to gradually get excited about the baby and then have a miscarriage. The scene where Grace holds down Jayden’s feet while she’s freaking out? I was positive that was the end of it. A kick, a panicked expression, new direction for the movie. Of course they way it actually did play out was more satisfying and probably a better way to go.

Even though it verged on oversentimentality, I thought the ending was good. The symmetry with the beginning totally worked. That can be gimmicky and it’s something I’d dismiss or make fun of if it didn’t hit the right spots. I don’t have a reason for liking it. It just felt right. A lot of Short Term 12 felt like that.

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