In quiet corners all across the land, the work of ministering to America's troubled falls largely to the young and the restless. Writer-director Destin Cretton bears witness to the agony and the ecstasy of foster care in Short Term 12, a fiction film inspired by his own experiences working in a group home.
Expanding from material Cretton first explored in a short film, Short Term 12 shows a canny ability to convey the routines of a foster-care facility—including the routine of surprise—and the variety of personalities brought together there. The film takes the perspective of staff members, principally Grace (Brie Larson of The United States of Tara) and her co-worker/boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher Jr. of The Newsroom), and in some respects, Short Term 12 is a procedural, marked by distinctive institutional argot (circle-up discussion of "levels and feelings," a "cool-down room") and blase attitudes to circumstances outsiders would view as extraordinary and shocking. (New to the "line staff," Rami Malek's Nate serves both as Cretton's surrogate and ours.)
The "under-18s" make for vivid characters, even when functioning as foils for imperfect hero Grace. As Marcus, a boy about to "age out" of the system, Keith Stanfield captures the apprehension and anger attendant to facing an indifferent world after the relative warmth of the Short Term 12 cocoon; in a gently observed scene, Marcus shares with Grace a song that expresses his hurt, and Stanfield sticks the landing. But the pivotal foster kid is fifteen-year-old Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever, also emotionally resonant), who appears to be the victim of domestic abuse, contends with her feelings by cutting, and brings up all of Grace's issues.
Short Term 12 takes a clear-eyed look at a vital but imperfect system that requires a just-so level of empathy: enough to reach and support the residents, but not enough to lose perspective, cross boundaries, or compromise much-needed "tough love." Rigid rules and regulations don't cut it, but neither does a total abandonment of those rules, which protect the safety of the children and the line staff.
In a film full of humane performances, Larson stands out, personifying the necessary vulnerability and strength Cretton captures of the workplace. Larson's right in her element with the sweet-tart dialogue, which Grace uses to strike a productive tone with the teens in her charge. The actress gets to show how much more she's capable of in scene after scene of emotional intimacy or distressingly private anguish: though Grace can intellectualize the need to share, and skillfully encourages it in others, she seems pathologically unable to open up even to ideal partner Mason.
Without getting too maudlin, Short Term 12 demonstrates the particular ways in which social-service work feeds the soul: not just out of the self-satisfaction of doing unto others, but in the two-way street of human interaction that's all about banishing B.S. and getting real to affect positive change in individual lives. Set against this backdrop, the relationship between Grace and Mason (himself a former foster child determined to do the work of the angels) highlights why the caregivers don't carry a swagger of superiority: they're still in their own processes of trying to break cycles of abuse or bad fortune, and if they can commit to being "Long Term 2," they may just become the kind of success story that keep them going back to work.