2013 MILWAUKEE FILM FESTIVAL – DAY SEVEN – SHORT TERM 12
The Milwaukee Film Festival has a tradition of a special screening for year round members of Milwaukee Film right in the middle of the festival. The film is kept a secret until literally a few minutes before the film starts. They’ve gotten some pretty significant films. Last year it was Silver Linings Playbook. This year, after an announcement featuring some Oscar type envelope opening, it was Short Term 12.
From a big picture perspective, Short Term 12, written and directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, sounds like it’s treading well-worn ground. Grace (Brie Larson) is a front line worker at a short term psychiatric facility for troubled children, most of them victims of some sort of abuse or trauma. Some are suicidal, some are cutters, some have violent mood swings, etc. She’s in a relationship with fellow worker Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), who is effortlessly warm. Grace is undergoing internal issues starting with discovering that she’s pregnant which dredges up issues involving her own childhood. Grace starts to bond with a new girl Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), who is a cutter just like Grace once was, and it opens up floodgates. But, through helping others, Grace helps herself.
That synopsis doesn’t do justice to the movie. On a pure plot level, it’s a pleasant enough story, true in many aspects, but there are also a number of cliches. For goodness sakes, the main character is named Grace. It would be easy for the film to fall into sentimentality and righteousness if not outright melodrama. But, the film avoids it at every opportunity by focusing on the humanity of the characters.
It’s the storyteller, not the story and the film is well aware of that. The film opens with Mason telling a story, with instructions to “tell it right”. That’s a key point that Cretton is consistently aware of. And storytelling is a recurring motif in the film itself; there’s a rap by one of the patients and a children’s story by another, that fully reveal what the characters are dealing with through their art rather than having them say “I’m dealing with this” in a direct and artless manner.
That extends to the main performance by Brie Larson which is a knockout. The film is constantly catching her in small moments, sometimes when her in control facade slips, exploring her inner feelings. More is said by a smile in bed than any sort of big speech. It’s the small moments that ultimately end up elevating the whole film. There are no big speeches and over the top emotional meltdowns. The film threatens to topple that way a few times during Act III, but it consistently walks itself back from the precipice. Ultimately the film is about specific people and the small moments that make up their lives and by going small the whole film soars.
It helps that throughout there’s a wonderful undercurrent of natural, self-deprecating humor. It knows that life and people can sometimes be ridiculous, the opening story has a punch line illustrating it and the humor serves to make everyone human and relatable, even when things look especially bleak. And it understands how humor can be used as a defense mechanism. Peter Gallagher Jr. is a sneaky weapon in this regard, and keeps the film on an even keel so that it never threatens to become dour even when it takes serious and bleak turns. That allows the movie to feel like life and allows genuine emotion to kick in.
The film closes with another story, this one with a different ending than the one that opened the film. It suggests that while there may be cycles, a common incident brings the story to an end, there may be ways to break these cycles. It’s a well-worn message, but a message that feels hopeful and earned. And it goes does easy as it never has to be specifically said by any character, but is weaved into the story itself.
Short Term 12 is a little film that could. It earns all the praise it’s been receiving by taking an often told story but telling it right. It’s one of the very best films of the year.