Part of the great 2013 Independent surge in which small films had a feeling of largeness and vitality, Short Term 12 is easily one of the best examples of how a movie could have gone terribly wrong and almost miraculously stays mostly clear of the potential rough turns. While it has plenty of merits-the performance of Brie Larson, the moments of genuine feeling and emotion, the naturalistic style-I think the greatest feat is writer/director's Destin Daniel Cretton's attempt to actually make a drama about damaged people working with damaged kids in a foster care center and pull it off as successfully as he does. Genre filmmaking is easy (relatively) because there are standards to follow and masters to emulate. Slice-of-life dramas present challenges yet the filmmaker is also liberated in that there are no real rules to follow. Yet Short Term 12 is a different kind of beast because it is dealing with a real institution, a real problem, and is thus forced to go about accurately depicting it in such a way as to attract the viewer emotionally while also avoid the obvious trap of trite melodrama.
Cretton succeeds admirably, creating a wonderful cast of characters who are all true to life, only rarely seeming like artificial creations. As the movie progresses it is not entirely successful, yet it's the choices Cretton initially makes in creating this world that makes the film ultimately such a good one. It has to do, I think, with the opening scene, in which three of the workers at the foster home, Grace (Larson), Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) and Jessica (Stephanie Beatriz) introduce the latest employee at the center, Nate, played by Rami Malek. Mason breaks in the slightly timid Nate in with an amusing anecdote involving an escaped foster child, yet it's not the story that makes this an important opening, but the fact that the scene belongs to no one. And that ends up being the key to Short Term 12's success; it gives its heart to everyone rather than than to a single protagonist. Sure, Larson's Grace ends up getting more screen time than other characters, but that's not because the film is about her, but because a particular foster child's abusive father happens to remind her of her own troubled past.
Cretton doesn't give all the characters equal time, but he treats them all with equally reserved sensitivity. Take Malek's Nate, for example. He barely registers as a character in a traditional sense in that he never talks about himself and we get no information regarding who he is outside of work, and yet the few scenes he has give us a wonderful sense of the type of person he is. It's clear that Cretton has thought about this character, and he gives him enough small wonderful moments that when we see him wiping blood off a wall (the remains of suicide attempt from a particularly sad kid named Marcus), there registers in the viewer a deep sense of feeling and understanding that most movies can't come close to providing.
In the same sense, Mason, who happens to be dating Grace, ends up being as important a character as any. We learn that he grew up with two incredibly generous foster parents, which makes his employment at Short Term 12 more understandable and emotionally potent. There's nothing like returning the favor to indicate the wonderful unselfish spirit humans are capable of showing.
Grace, we also learn, has a special connection to the foster center because she suffered the same kind of abuse that many of these kids have, as well. The only problem with this is that it certain encounters with kids can bring past traumas bubbling to the surface, such as Jayden, a rebellious teen whose troubled family life mirrors Grace's past far too well. This creates some dramatic developments in the final third of the film that are a little forced and obvious, as what was a really moving and convincing drama becomes too molded, like a craft beer that's trying too hard. Cretton is correct in feeling the need to give Grace some extra screen time and development (though again, I argue she's not a protagonist), but one can smell the workshopping in the way he goes about doing it.
But what an emotional, challenging and rewarding film this ultimately is. Cretton deserves applause to even consider making a movie with this topic, and even more for the way he goes about handling it-particualrly the scenes set inside the foster home. Short Term 12 grabs you in the best kind of way: rarely does it even seem to be trying.