Odeon Covent Garden is a good cinema in many respects, but it has the creakiest seats of any cinema you are ever likely to visit. The slightest movement is enough to make a sound like a redwood falling. Which is superb, no doubt, when it comes to watching horror, but not so much for indie dramas. At first I thought it was just me, and remained frozen while listening to the audience’s laughter and sobbing during the first half of the film. In the latter half, the laughter and sobs subsided, and I became aware instead of the creaking all around me of a dozen or so restless rear-ends.
Short Term 12 follows the story of Grace (Brie Larson), the type of low-voiced twenty-something beloved of indie films, working with her boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher, Jr.) in a foster-home providing temporary care for troubled teenagers. Enter Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), a sarcastic self-harmer with a gift for art and a few parallels with Grace that become clearer as the film goes on. Also needing Grace’s care is Marcus (Keith Stanfield), a quiet kid with a pet fish who expresses himself through rap music, and feuds with the more extroverted Luis (Kevin Hernandez).
If I’m making this sound like cookie-cutter material, it is: at two separate points in the film someone makes reference to something being like “in the movies”, as if writer-director Destin Cretton is self-conscious about its gushier moments. Although this is a purportedly “dark and complex” film looking at kids being failed by the system, the problems in this film are all solved by sitting down and talking about them. There’s a crashing inevitability about the film as it hurtles on towards its predictably cathartic end, with less and less to break up the action as the stakes continue to rise.
…I’ve always felt you can tell a lot about a person from their fingernails…
Cretton developed Short Term 12 from a short film based on his own experiences working in a foster-home, which will surprise anyone who has seen this film. There are details here that feel real, particularly in the storyline dealing with the vulnerable Marcus, played with feeling by Stanfield. I’ve always felt you can tell a lot about a person from their fingernails – despite Grace being a frankly too-perfect counsellor to the kids, hers are completely ragged. The plot device by which workers cannot touch kids outside the home’s boundaries also had a poetry to it that felt true.
All of the film’s best moments, like Marcus’s rap, are played to silence. However, the effect is spoiled when the obligatory plinky-plonk acoustic guitar comes in to wash away any feeling of reality. Furthermore, it somehow reinforces the idea that this is a vision of the foster-care system as seen by middle-class eyes: no loose ends, no children left behind. The more the film wears on, the less it surprises us, with Jayden’s turn as sage particularly cartoonish. With an almighty creak, my friend stood up to go to the toilet at the beginning of one scene, having guessed how it would end.
…This hardened critic burst into tears within the first ten minutes…
There’s the cliché that “no-one was left dry-eyed”. This hardened critic burst into tears within the first ten minutes, but successive scenes of rising hysteria gave me time to put my armour back on, and I left decidedly dry-eyed and grumbling about the indie obsession with climactic scenes on bicycles. We see films by Noah Baumbach or the Duplass brothers partly because they don’t varnish their works, which aren’t perfect but at least can breathe. What the restless audience showed is that the line between hard-hitting and saccharine can be as thin as a few guitar strings.