It's de rigueur among movie lovers to pooh-pooh the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the professional honorary organization that gives out the Oscars. Not without reason: though sometimes the picks are good, at other times the Awards seem designed purely to give Hollywood another occasion to pat itself on the back while the rest of us watch all the glitz at home.
But if Short Term 12 is any indication, then the Academy is up to some good. Writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton, a graduate of Point Loma Nazarene and San Diego State, was nominated for a 2009 Student Academy Award for a short film by the same name. It didn't win, but Cretton received the Academy's Nicholl Fellowship in screenwriting, and this film is the result. (In the interim, he also made last year's I Am Not a Hipster, which received solid reviews from critics and played at Sundance and in limited theatrical release.) And this feature-length version won the narrative feature Audience Award this March at SXSW.
In short: I don't expect to see a better film this year than Short Term 12. It reminded of what makes the small, independent feature great. It also (in ways that oddly mimic The Wire) makes a subtle statement about the limits, and goodness, of the law.
The film tells the deeply affecting story of Grace (The Spectacular Now's Brie Larson), supervisor at a foster care group home for troubled teenagers, as she navigates both their difficulties and her own, especially her relationship with her coworker and boyfriend, Mason (John Gallagher Jr., from The Newsroom). The teenagers in the home are reeling from a variety of the worst sorts of problems: sexual and emotional abuse, criminal pasts, deaths in the family, abandonment. They live in the home until they are 18, and Grace and Mason and their coworkers are there to keep peace and show them some love and normality.
Throughout their days, the home operates like a little family. They play wiffle ball. They get in fistfights. They brush their teeth and do their chores and celebrate birthdays with homemade cupcakes. The staff are barely older than the residents, but for the teenagers, that's all the stability they'll know.
But as we get to know Grace, Mason, and the others, we start to understand that they are there for deeply personal reasons. And they're becoming adults right along with their charges, trying to navigate their own troubled backgrounds and give these kids a shot at normality, too.
The film picks up as Grace begins to edge toward her breaking point for a variety of reasons, especially because a girl named Jayden shows up in the home. Jayden reminds Grace of herself, and so she starts to bump into old stories and emotions that she'd locked away in order to cope with her life.
That sounds like a bummer of a film, and I'll admit that I wasn't too excited to go to my screening (yes, I felt guilty about that fact). But I was moved to tears, because what Cretton has created is a small world in which love, law, and brokenness operate freely. The government's social systems are a quagmire for any filmmaker to wander into, but instead of critiquing the system, Short Term 12 does something interesting.