Destin Daniel Cretton's sophomore film started life in 2009 as an award-winning short film, but you wouldn't necessarily notice it from this successful expansion into a feature-length work, entirely rewritten, reshot and recast. In fact, Short Term 12 should have been Mr. Cretton's feature debut had he found the money at the time; instead, he ended up directing another feature, I Am Not a Hipster, designed as a "calling card" to get financing, but that debut didn't register as strongly as Short Term 12 has, snowballing all the way into critical raves, instant cult status and even an inside track for the award season.

     The explanation for the love the film has received is pretty simple: though this is in essence a "problem picture" set in the world of at-risk teenagers, Mr. Cretton doesn't go in for the pious, well-meaning "everything will be OK" posture and doesn't paint his characters into hero or villain corners. Instead, he prefers to underline the flawed, human characteristics of everyone involved, the haunting, tender emotions of not just the kids who find their way into this particular temporary home but also of those who are supposed to take care of them and make them feel all right. Such is the case of Grace (Brie Larson, in a wonderfully rounded career-making performance), one of the supervisors, who is undergoing issues of her own with her live-in boyfriend and co-worker Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), and takes a special interest in newly-arrived Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), a sullen teenager with serious father issues.

     The reasons for Grace's interest will become known with time, which is the point where Mr. Cretton's scripting can seem somewhat formulaic: the roundelay of personal stories may seem a bit too neatly arranged and organised despite the apparently messy handheld handling. Yet the open flaws and intense empathy the cast pours into the film shine through, preventing Short Term 12 from falling into the well-meaning trap of so many problem pictures. Instead - probably because the director himself worked as a carer - the film rings true in the little details and the sense of lived-in space that cuts through any crap. And, more significantly, it allows the actors enough breathing space to inhabit characters, plot and tempo. It's a poised, secure film that doesn't take anything for granted, an honest, serious, engrossing piece of work that moves the viewer without ever becoming mawkish or manipulative.

Cast: Brie Larson, John Gallagher Jr., Kaitlyn Dever, Rami Malek, Keith Stansfield, Kevin Hernandez, Melora Walters
Director and screenwriter: Destin Daniel Cretton
Cinematography: Brett Pawlak (colour, widescreen)
Music: Joel P. West
Designer: Rachel Myers
Costumes: Mirren Gordon Crozier, Joy Cretton
Editor: Nat Sanders
Producers: Maren Olson, Asher Goldstein, Joshua Astrachan, Ron Najor (Animal Kingdom and Traction Media in association with The San Francisco Film Society/Kenneth Rainin Foundation)
USA, 2013, 93 minutes

Screened: Lisbon & Estoril Film Festival competition advance screener, Lisbon, November 7th 2013


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