MOVIES THAT DON’T SUCK: Director Destin Cretton makes realism look easy in ‘Short Term 12’

The difference between plausibility and true believability is very small—almost insignificant in most contexts. Yet it is this crucial difference that can make a good movie into a great one.

The number of plausible films in the last year alone is too high to count.

For example, “Fury” was fairly historically accurate. I’m sure if there were a semi-psychotic tank commander who resembled Brad Pitt in WWII, what happens in “Fury” is a good approximation of what would go down.

And yet we are consciously aware that we are watching a film, and not just because we’re 12 hours into a Netflix marathon and our eyeballs have begun to give out.

Even when watching great movies, it’s usually obvious that what we’re watching takes place in a modified reality with different rules.

However, with “Short Term 12,” director Destin Cretton avoids making a “movie movie,” so to speak, and gives us a movie that is as real as it is heartwarming.

The idea for the film came from Cretton’s experience  workering in a group home for troubled teens—an idea he later turned into a 22-minute short of the same name.

The movie that followed is the feature-length adaptation of that script. Many of the major plot points remain, except the characters are much more fleshed-out, and the main character in the short has been split into two.

Obviously, the result was a success, or I wouldn’t be telling you about it.

Brie Larson plays Grace, a supervisor at a government group home, the titular Short Term 12.

Although Grace preaches to her charges about emotional healing and recovery, she can’t open up to her long-time boyfriend and co-worker Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) because of her troubled past.

Grace’s struggle to overcome her fear and make things work with Mason is the lens through which we view the problems of the kids staying at Short Term 12.

While the problems are numerous, the movie mostly focuses on Marcus (Keith Standfield), an older resident who must face the reality of going back to his abusive mother when he turns 18 and Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), a newly arrived antisocial girl with family issues that mirror Grace’s.

We’re introduced to the world of Short Term 12 through a series of shots of the morning routine. Girls sit in pajamas and braid hair. A boy feeds his fish. Much like the rest of the film, our opening moments in Short Term 12 just feel so real.

By the time the morning community meeting has ended, we have the full picture of Short Term 12. There’s fun and laughter (it is, after all, a place mainly populated by kids), but there is always an underlying tension, a feeling that someone may have an especially bad day and break down.

“Short Term 12” is temperamental, and will make you laugh with its mundane, everyday humor in one moment and then, much like a resident of Short Term 12, bring all that laughter crashing down into crushing sadness.

Of course, the film does have a few moments where it engages in cheesiness. However, my schmaltz detector only really went off during the ending, so I think I’ll let it slide on merit alone.

The obvious standout actor is Larson, whose character is fun, quirky, passionate and very, very troubled. Combined, these are not easy to pull off without looking like your character is flip-flopping every other scene.

Another remarkable performance is Dever as Grace’s emotionally challenged clone, Jayden. Playing a sad kid is easy even if they’re teenagers. I mean, people are biologically hardwired to find them innately pitiful. The difficult part is to play the abused girl whose father is still very much in her life.

She must portray a girl to whom the unspeakable has been done by someone close to her while still retaining the cautious optimism that maybe, just maybe, things will be different next time. Happily, Dever’s more than capable of making it work, and she does it quite well.

Yes, the brutally charming realism of “Short Term 12” is an absolute joy to watch, so give it a try.

You might even forget you’re watching.

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