Short Term 12: The Best Film of the Year (So Far)

Brie Larson is stunning in the indie film about a facility for troubled teens.
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I wasn’t able to see Short Term 12 before its limited release to theaters over the past two weeks. Typically, in such situations I just move on: If I miss commenting on a good movie (or a memorably terrible one), well, those are the breaks. There are plenty of excellent critics out there to make up for the omission. But there are occasions when some comment—however brief and belated—is preferable to none at all, and this is one of them.

Short Term 12 is nothing short of extraordinary, a compact masterpiece of storytelling that brims equally with ambition and humility. It is, by a wide margin, the best film I have seen so far this year, and I will consider myself lucky if I see another as good.

The movie, which won the audience and grand jury prizes at South by Southwest, is the second feature by Destin Daniel Cretton, an expansion of the 22-minute short of the same name that he produced in 2008. Drawing on Cretton’s own post-collegiate experience working at a facility for at-risk teens, the film tells the story of Grace (Brie Larson), a woman in her mid-twenties juggling the overlapping roles of mentor, warden, surrogate parent, and friend to the kids in her charge. She is also, by inches, coming to terms with the demons in her own past, and what they may mean for her future.

That’s really all one needs to know about Short Term 12—at least, apart from the fact that it is a genuine stunner, a work of ardent, life-affirming humanism. Larson offers a magnificently layered performance as Grace: hardnosed yet vulnerable, practical yet empathetic. The rest of the cast, too, is superb, in particular John Gallagher Jr. as a coworker to whom Grace is close and Keith Stanfield as a boy on the verge of aging out of the facility on his 18th birthday. Cretton’s direction is at once understated and self-assured, and his script a marvel of concision: It is hard to believe that a film so rich in surprise and emotion can clock in at a mere 96 minutes yet never feel overstuffed or manipulative.

I could easily go on. But rather than roll out a prolonged parade of flattering adjectives, I will merely say this: Go see Short Term 12 if you can, and agitate for its wider release if you can’t. The film is a rare treasure, a tale firmly grounded in this world that nonetheless offers glimpses of heaven and hell alike, of love and hardship and pain and recovery—and, yes, of grace. 

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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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