So, here it is: the best movie of the year so far. Usually by this point, we have more to work with before the flood of festival films that emerge from Toronto and Venice fight for a strategically placed opening in November or December, wresting all the momentum from the year's earlier successes. But 2013 has not been a banner year. A few minor milestones in the spring, an impotent summer, and here we are.
The name Short Term 12 refers to a group home where troubled kids go because the system and/or their families have no other place to turn. Some are emotionally frayed, some are violent and some are recovering. It is, no matter how idyllic the surrounding pastures might look, a desperate place. The tenants' ages range from about 12 to 17 while the attending staff members are largely in their early to mid-20s.
This is a story about the home's staff, which is something director Destin Daniel Cretton knows about. Before entering graduate school, Cretton spent a summer in a group home much like this. He was a wide-eyed neophyte who could not believe the daily emotional swings. For our purposes as viewers, Cretton has written that experience into the character of Nate (Rami Malek). He's an observer. He doesn't know how to talk to or about these kids, and is of very little use to anyone for about half the film.
On the other hand, Grace (Brie Larson) has been here for a while. We learn, through a slowly assembled backstory, that her history is much like that of the current residents of the home—a victim of abuse, a self-mutilator, and still afraid of the one person who has traumatized her her entire life. The best thing she's got going is a relationship with Mason (John Gallagher Jr.). While Mason may not be the most career-minded and ambitious guy in the world, he's incredibly caring, willing to be the reservoir for anyone else's pain. Mason likewise didn't have the best upbringing, which leads to the film's most touching moment: His tearful 30th anniversary tribute to the foster parents who took him in and gave him a chance.
The staff work here because if they don't, who will? Who will give Marcus (Keith Stanfield) a sounding board for his rage and his poetic rap? And who will stand up to him when he bullies a younger and smaller kid? Who will come to the case with more than a textbook rationale when Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) shows all the signs of parental sexual assault?
There are predictable scenes here and there—outbursts, runaways, inflexible bureaucrats—and probably one seismic shift too many, but Short Term 12 largely operates in those smaller moments where characters and relationships are built. The Mason we meet in the opening scene, telling an embarrassing and humorous personal story of dealing with a runaway, is not at all the Mason that Grace has learned to trust over three years. And the sardonic Grace from the film's opening moments gives way to a more defensive and almost defenseless creature when her full story comes into focus.
And that's ultimately what filmmaking is about. It has nothing to do with reserving some day on the calendar years in advance because another movie had a big opening weekend on that same date. If you can't tell stories that make us care about people, you're just wasting your money and our time. Those stories take all shapes, of course, and "people" can be Na'vi or cartoon robots, but relatable characters in conflict is Screenwriting 101.
Destin Daniel Cretton delivers a story that ultimately goes nowhere. Our characters advance emotionally, but the first and last scenes take place in the exact same spot on the map. Kids will move in, kids will move out. The question to ask here is: Life goes on, so how does this movie capture that life?
Beyond simply being a great film, Short Term 12 should also be universally embraced by the independent film community for its life cycle. Admittedly, "independent" is a foggy term these days, when Fox Searchlight and Universal's Focus Features gobble up promising small films at the festivals and market the bejesus out of them or, alternately, greenlight their own less-inspired works in the hopes that their brand recognition will pay off.
But this began as a 20-minute short, which Cretton submitted to the Sundance Film Festival in 2009. It won a jury prize there and his accompanying feature-length script won a Nicholl Fellowship through the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences the following year. And after finding enough people to believe in the project, Cretton made this his way with his cast. Because of that trajectory, the proof is in the pudding: Short Term 12 is an excellent, heartbreaking piece of cinema.