Combustible Celluloid
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With: Brie Larson, John Gallagher Jr., Kaitlyn Dever, Stephanie Beatriz, Rami Malek, Alex Calloway, Kevin Hernandez, Lydia Du Veaux, Keith Stanfield, Frantz Turner, Diana Maria Riva, Harold Cannon, Silvia Curiel, Melora Walters, Bran'dee Allen
Written by: Destin Cretton
Directed by: Destin Cretton
MPAA Rating: R for language and brief sexuality
Running Time: 96
Date: 08/23/2013

Short Term 12 (2013)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Care Passages

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

"I've always wanted to work with underprivileged kids," says the new counselor at the foster care facility Short Term 12, and he immediately realizes he has made a faux pas. The oldest kid, Marcus (Keith Stanfield) reacts indignantly, and not without reason. And we, too, are with him. These are not underprivileged kids... just kids who never had anyone to listen to them.

Just in case you thought this was going to be an annoyingly feel-good, or worse, a self-important movie about Weighty Social Issues, let me reassure you that Short Term 12, written and directed by Destin Cretton (based on his own 2008 short film), is the kind of movie that opens with a story about a guy pooping his pants. Not one of the kids... one of the counselors.

The movie focuses on Grace, played with great soul and depth by Brie Larson; she's having one of those landmark years, and can also be seen in fine performances in The Spectacular Now and Don Jon. Aside from her job, Grace is also dealing with some childhood issues, and although she's skilled at pinpointing the problems of her kids, she has some trust issues around her boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), who also works as a counselor at Short Term 12.

Grace also tunes into a new girl, Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), picking up on little clues about possible abuse by Jayden's father. Unfortunately, these clues are based on personal knowledge and experience. She becomes a little too involved with Jayden's case, and it doesn't help that she has just found out she's pregnant. Grace never reveals her thoughts about the baby, but it's clear what she's thinking: how can she bring another child into this cruel world?

Just like in life, the people that work at Short Term 12, which also includes the pretty Jessica (Stephanie Beatriz) and the rookie Nate (Rami Malek), try not to let things get to them. There's a lot of joking and laughter. After chasing down a runaway kid and getting him in an armhold, Mason casually continues with the interrupted story he was just telling.

The movie is richly detailed in the way that all the characters intertwine, and how they interact with shorthand. Bringing a rookie into the movie at the beginning is an easy filmmaker's trick, using him to introduce the audience to everyone and everything, but Nate quickly becomes a part of the team, and more than just a device. And the kids become more than just objects of pity or sympathy.

Perhaps the two most incredible scenes depict two of the kids showing their writing to their counselors. Marcus performs a rap song for Mason (Mason provides a simple beat on a bongo drum) and Jayden reads to Grace a harrowing children's story she's written about a shark and an octopus. Both of these scenes leave you feeling devastated, but privileged to be alive.

In this day and age when every movie must be defined and labeled and marketed, Short Term 12 is not so easy to nail down. But when you're watching it, it's very easy indeed. You can just feel your way through. It's a wild, unruly mess of rampant emotions, and yes, some of them are painful, but there's a great deal of warmth and love here too. It's a truly wonderful movie.

Cinedigm has released a double-disc DVD/Blu-ray set. The transfer emphasizes the movie's digital video look, which is fine since its strengths are in the writing and characters. Extras include the original 21-minute short film, a 22-minute behind-the-scenes featurette (which feels nicely homemade and not studio-produced), a featurette about the music, deleted scenes, footage from the cast & crew screening, trailers, and information about foster care outreach.

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