There’s an almost indescribable quality to Brie Larson. She’s an actress with an effortless screen presence and level of performance that has always proven rewarding in emerging roles in the likes of Greenberg, Scott Pilgrim…, Don Jon and recently Trainwreck. It’s in Short Term 12, though, where she is given the opportunity of a rich leading role and has never been so rewarding (without seeing her much heralded performance in the upcoming Room). She brings such a moving fragility and delicacy to Grace, a supervisor in a residential treatment facility for teenagers inspired by Cretton’s own experience of working in one. There’s a satisfying warmth to the film which comes from such a heartfelt, intimate and sincere place – occupied by an ensemble of perfectly measured performances. All are thoroughly impressive, but it is Larson who anchors the thrust of the narrative with an outstanding display.
With such a deep supporting cast, Cretton offers these characters opportunities to develop their own stories and become well rounded, functioning individuals. While inevitably leaving some of these narratives underdeveloped, the trajectory of the arcs and how they’re structured within the wider setting are very well plotted. It can successfully play as an ensemble piece, but is all the more powerful for these minor arcs enriching and informing the central one.
There’s similarities between Grace and Jaden (Kaitlyn Dever) which bubble to the surface cleverly and subtly as the film progresses. Both had abusive dads, have a talent for arts and – not so uniquely it seems – make themselves bleed through digging their nail into their hand. This is the mechanism through which Grace begins to relate to Jaden, understand how to get her to relate back and, in turn, behave appropriately within the care home. But Grace soon projects her own abusive adolescence onto those around her in this sensitive setting. The smashing of her boss’ lamp, for example, is the same kind of outburst that Jaden would be expected to deliver. This type of clear paralleling could come off forced or contrived, but it’s handled so delicately that it all plays convincingly.
Jaden’s arrival and Grace’s well intentioned bonding with her awakens Grace’s past torments; it reveals that her resilient exterior and armor is penetrable. It’s an awakening meditation on the vulnerability of our adolescent emotional scars and the powerful hold that they have over us. They can heal, but are a permanent reminder and become more sensitive to regeneration. It bodes the question of why Grace chooses to work in this environment – blame of oneself , punishment, a need to tackle the issue head on, a sense of necessity to help others? All are hinted to but never confirmed, because an issue of this psychological complexity deserves more than a straight answer. Her inability to let others in or open up to anyone emotionally, such as her long term boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher, Jr.), is one of the true terrors of this kind of emotional abuse.
Complex the film is and triumphant in its emotional insight it becomes. There’s a sheer meticulousness in ensuring that every beat is hammered in tight. Joel P West’s score offers a probing portal into these scenes, capturing their essence with wonderful simplicity and charm. Arguments have been made about about a contrived final third, but it effectively builds up Grace’s susceptibility to a level where her actions are a believable turn of character. This, in fact, redirects from what could end up as truly cliché narrative choices and establishes a genuine connection between the two characters.
For more of my in-depth analysis and thoughts on Short Term 12, listen to episode 4 of the Project Projection podcast