Simultaneously upsetting and uplifting, Short Term 12 is a quality drama featuring well developed characters and some clever filmmaking that never allows heavy content to be too depressing.
Start with the screenplay. Writer/Director Destin Cretton not only creates multi-dimensional characters, but he also writes excellent dialogue, which is all the more remarkable for finding ways to make exposition powerful. By having characters tell stories, rap poetry or discuss art work, Cretton ensures we know essential backstories, but he still shows not tells characters. It is award-worthy writing.
Partially because Cretton infuses just enough humor to make Short Term 12 entertaining.
His direction is as good as his screenplay. He is wise to use hand-held cameras that often shake; they help create tone, help us understand that the characters and story are messier than it might first appear.
Cretton’s wardrobe selections are impeccable, always ensuring we understand the movie’s characters and their relationships. Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) can say she hates Grace (Brie Larson), but her wardrobe tells us otherwise. Similarly, we know that Nate (Rami Malek) is out of his element, not because he immediately says or does anything wrong, but because he’s wearing the wrong clothes. And so forth.
The score compliments the visuals well. When the film is at its most intense, the music is silent. When characters are enjoying themselves, it’s more whimsical, once even breaking into pseudo-mariachi. Much of what we feel in Short Term 12, we feel because of the music.
The rest of our emotions come from a brilliant cast. Brie Larson is a revelation, proving herself a heavy-weight actor, one capable of not only disappearing into her character, but also of portraying nuance and depth. She is award-worthy good.
Kaitlyn Dever is terrific, as well, as are John Gallagher Jr (Mason) and Keith Stanfield (Marcus), the former of whom proves a capable emotional anchor while the latter is scene-stealingly understated.
All which is to say Short Term 12 is an excellent film with powerful themes, terrific performances and a stunning screenplay.
Yes, the climax is a bit rushed, and yes Mason’s final story is probably too perfect, but the flaws are minor. I recommend this movie without the slightest reservation.