A war gets fought between authenticity and hokum in Short Term 12, and it ends in an uneasy truce. Written and directed by Destin Daniel Cretton (I Am Not A Hipster), it’s inspired by his experiences working in a foster-care facility; the title refers to the fact that most of the kids stay a year or less before being placed elsewhere or released. At its best, the film conveys a wealth of compelling details that only an insider, or at least someone who’s done extensive and thorough research, would think worthy of singling out. Emotions, too, generally have a real-world level of complexity and honesty. As it goes along, however, Short Term 12 increasingly succumbs to a screenwriter’s worst impulses, becoming neat and tidy in ways that undermine what’s so good about it.
Opening with an anecdote about an escape attempt that’s abruptly interrupted by an actual escape attempt—a terrific jolt that Cretton retroactively spoils by rehashing it at movie’s end—Short Term 12 quickly and efficiently introduces its key players, anchored by baby-faced head counselor Brie Larson. Endlessly compassionate with the troubled kids in her care, Larson has a habit of shutting out her live-in boyfriend (The Newsroom’s John Gallagher Jr.), who works alongside her at the facility. She’s also especially drawn to 12’s newest arrival, a sarcastic teen girl (Kaitlyn Dever, from Justified and the Tim Allen sitcom Last Man Standing) with a history of cutting herself and a possibly abusive father. As it turns out, Larson has some serious father issues of her own, and being forced to finally confront them threatens her relationship with Gallagher, her job, and—by the time she breaks into Dever’s house and stands over the girl’s sleeping father while holding a baseball bat—possibly even her sanity.
Whichever screenwriting guru is urging his disciples to do this sort of thing (and it may well be all of them) has to be stopped. Acknowledging that a counselor can be as emotionally unstable as her charges doesn’t require allotting her a traumatic past that precisely matches what the kid she’s obsessed with is currently going through. Such hackneyed coincidence bulldozes the sense of verisimilitude Cretton and his actors had been working so hard to establish. Which is a real shame, because Short Term 12’s first half, which concentrates on mundane interactions between kids and staff (who are practically kids themselves, barely out of college), is engaging enough that it didn’t need cranked-up, “this time it’s personal” melodrama. Larson, in particular, does wonders with a character who in other hands could easily have come across as overly earnest, even saccharine—she makes caring (as distinct from “caring for”) seem like a real avocation, every bit as daunting and challenging as medicine or the law. It’s a superb performance that deserved a more credible, less jerry-rigged context.