Short-Term 12, the title of a movie written and directed by newcomer Destin Daniel Cretton, is a nickname for a small foster care facility that houses minors for which places haven’t yet been found. The big decisions, of course, are made by social workers and therapists, but the story focuses on the 20-something techs that run day-to-day operations in the place, especially a capable and empathetic supervisor named Grace, played by Brie Larson. She works with, and lives with, her romantic partner Mason, played by John Gallagher, Jr., and as the movie opens she discovers that she’s pregnant. One might expect this to be good news, but as it turns out, things are more complicated for Grace.
The staff members are in firm control of the kids, but their roles also involve being sensitive to the difficult problems and issues of their charges. One teenager is clearly frightened at the prospect of his upcoming 18th birthday, when he’ll have to leave. Another kid clings to stuffed animals and dolls, and periodically runs out of the building in a screaming panic. Grace takes a particular interest in a new girl, 16-year-old Jaden, played by Kaitlyn Dever, whose off-putting behavior and distant affect masks a secret history of abuse. Opening herself up to this girl makes Grace vulnerable to feelings about her own past that she has suppressed for many years.
The film is shot in digital video, and the soft look matches the informality of the style. Things happen in this story, but the events have the almost random, arbitrary effect of real life. The director is best at the small, telling detail, like the pictures that adorn the different kids’ rooms. On the other hand, a later scene with Grace trying to rescue Jaden from a toxic home shows Cretton trying a little too hard, and the same goes for the film’s overly wistful musical score. Still, the film has a real sense of the legacy of childhood trauma that is very much lacking in previous films of this kind such as Girl, Interrupted. The performances, headed by Brie Larson, who gets to stretch far beyond her TV persona, are excellent. Overall, Short-Term 12 has the right mixture of modesty, humor, and intelligence to make it worth your attention.