“Oh. That’s the piece of avocado in your beard.”
Other films cropping up into your memory while watching something new can either be a sign that originality in cinema is officially dead or the realization you’re about to experience greatness. The latter happened to me during Short Term 12 and I’m talking like ten minutes in after affable veteran Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) finishes telling newbie Nate (Rami Malek) about his second day as a line staff employee at the group home for at-risk teenagers behind them before having to run after a worked-up thirteen year-old flying towards the area beyond their legal control to physically bring back. There’s honesty to every word, expression, and wry smile from these two men, their co-worker Jessica (Stephanie Beatriz), and boss Grace (Brie Larson) that makes you open up for the flood of emotions to come.
I thought about It’s Kind of a Funny Story first—a film I found to be an effective dramedy with authentic performances and a worthwhile lesson on behalf of late author Ned Vizzini. I saw it in the way these characters disarmed newcomers and troubled souls yearning to be understood, loved, and above all else safe despite defenses trying hard to shut everyone out. But as the reality of where these kids came from surfaces—the level of abuse, depression, and abject sorrow etched on each face—the underrated and under-seen Manic with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zooey Deschanel, and Don Cheadle stuck in my mind. There’s a palpable fear in both that at any given moment someone will find him/herself beyond salvation. These are children who tragically never had the chance to know what being a child truly means.
Expanded from writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton‘s Sundance Jury Prize-winning short of the same name in 2009 and based on his own experiences being out of his depth and ill-prepared for what working in a home like this involved, Short Term 12 was destined for greatness long before the stunner we now see. The short’s success led to his adapting it into an AMPAS Nicholl Fellowship-winning script in 2010 before the finished product earned both the Grand Jury Narrative Feature Award and Narrative Audience Award at 2013’s SXSW. If the world were just Cretton would have received even wider praise from the Golden Globes and the Oscars, but such a future was doubtful at best after proving unable to secure a nomination at the Independent Spirit Awards. Thankfully, trophies are meaningless when you have the goods regardless.
The story orbits around twenty-something Grace as she struggles with what’s possibly the most tumultuous week of her life. We notice she’s slightly distant—deflecting boyfriend Mason’s worry while subconsciously digging her thumbnail into her index finger—yet still find her able to perform duties as a respected leader by employees and wards alike. What we soon discover, though, is just how well she understands these kids’ feelings. Admissions about her parents, suicidal tendencies, and the terror of being pregnant slowly expose themselves due to the situations of those around her conjuring memories she’s desperately tried to repress. Her past, present, and future align on an atomic bomb-sized collision course ready to blow and there doesn’t appear to be one periphery win with which to alleviate the cynicism and pessimism overpowering all semblance of hope.
And hope is what’s needed to get through the day—hope and genuine praise. Some of the most honest moments are when Mason tells Grace how effective she was that day or Grace telling Nate his first experience was a success even though we know he stumbled at best. Working at a place where you must always be vigilant, compassionate, and patient while kids are spitting in your face or threatening themselves with scissors can easily be seen as thankless when everything good you do is met with rage and anger. To allow those hurtful feelings to land despite knowing the vitriol is ultimately aimed at themselves or those who irrevocably wronged them can be crippling. Sometimes it only takes a second—a glimmer of appreciation in their eye—to see beyond the evil words spewing forth.
We see it in Luis’ (Kevin Hernandez) inability to let silence rule when the opportunity to rile everyone up around him is too great; Sammy’s (Alex Calloway) tragic backstory told only by the knowledge that the taking away of his weathered toys as a cold turkey therapy maneuver destroys him because they were his sisters; and Marcus’ (Keith Stanfield) suffocating apprehension at turning eighteen and no longer being able to stay in the one real home he’s ever known. These kids will devastate you whether engaged in an emotionally gripping release (Marcus’ rap about what his mother did to him entitled “So You Know What It’s Like” will give you chills) or a feat of pure empathy (Marcus seeing the pain of Kaitlyn Dever’s newcomer Jayden and his rallying the group to show her love on her birthday).
The wonderful thing about Cretton’s use of this pain is that it never feels clichéd courtesy of his sincere approach and the cast’s impressive performances. They all form shields and tear them down in a roller coaster of emotion they simply cannot avoid. And while you initially believe Grace et al are pillars of strength to get them through it, we learn that most are helping because they themselves needed that same assistance ten years prior. Everyone becomes a product of their environment and their ability to grow, evolve, and allow the love they’ve always coveted wash over them when it’s finally there to be had. It’s in Mason’s heartfelt thank you on his foster parents’ thirtieth anniversary and Grace’s bullish desire to protect Jayden from the fate she was forced to live no matter the cost.
And through it all lays a soft humor to counteract the hurt. Not the laughter of anxiousness and fear—although that’s here too—but a release of joy to share a moment where everything can melt away. Malek’s Nate is an example as the new guy hazed by coworkers and kids alike while Gallagher’s Mason shows it with seasoned maturity to gain trust and give these teens his love. Stanfeld and Dever are amazingly poignant in their struggle to cope with an unknown future—his rap and her story about an octopus and shark remaining in your consciousness hours later. But the true heart and soul is Larson’s affecting Grace and her gradually exposed depth. She’s simultaneously a hero and victim living to one day become whole, accepting the harrowingly impossible journey necessary for the opportunity.
Oh, and the ending’s full-circle bookend? Perfect.
 Brie Larson stars as Grace and Kaitlyn Dever stars as Jayden in Cinedigm Digital Cinema’s Short Term 12 (2013)
 Brie Larson stars as Grace and Keith Stanfield stars as Marcus in Cinedigm Digital Cinema’s Short Term 12 (2013)
 Brie Larson stars as Grace and John Gallagher Jr. stars as Mason in Cinedigm Digital Cinema’s Short Term 12 (2013)