^ Brie Larson as Grace, in Destin Cretton’s “Short Term 12”

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Not so long ago, for about two or three years, I taught creative writing to girls and young women who were wards of the state at the Germaine Lawrence School in Arlington, MA. These women had lived hard lives, drug addiction, rape, multiple pregnancies by the age of sixteen and abuse. A friend of mine who worked at the school and knew that I wrote, had grants and was looking for artists to help the girls shape their stories and find their inner voice. I was apprehensive at first, but agreed to do so and found it one of the most rewarding, eye-opening experiences of my life. I’m certain the girls did more for me than I did for them, but there would be times when a girl would not show up for class, and when I would ask why, I was routinely told it was because they had gone ‘on the run’ and was likely using or worse. There were also times when one would have a fit during our sessions and need to be restrained by the ready staff members in the room. It was violent and shocking to me, but overall, these women were raw, sweet and tough yet highly vulnerable. Fragile fierceness is what I called it.

I tell you all this because, in watching Destin Cretton’s consuming “Short Term 12,” a character study about the youth in a temporary home for troubled teens and the adults who run it, I kept having flash-backs to my time at Germiane Lawrence—deeply emotional, affecting ones. Cretton, who’s a young and promising director, actually worked in such a home; he gets the experience down right, and viscerally too, even if you were never aware such places existed or what they are like.

The sweet barb to the film is that two of the young adults who work at the facility (Brie Larson and John Gallagher Jr.) used to be in such a home themselves. The pair, Mason and Grace, are also in an uneasy relationship; yet on the job, they’re composed and in charge. So much so, that it seems as if much, after being in such a home, must have changed and gone right for them. Then, soon enough, we get glimpses into their not-too-distant pasts–mostly Grace’s–and the reality is not very pretty.

Not only do they have their own demons to contend with, but those of the kids; and they possess insight beyond any graduate degree hanging on a wall. In one telling scene Grace tells the resident therapist that one girl is being/has been abused by her father, because ‘she knows.’ Going by the book the therapist disregards what he considers conjecture and the ramifications are profound.

Much of the film grows like that — small moments laced with tension and consequence. Larson brings a gritty intensity to Grace; we see her full-bodied and real. She’s a survivor and a care giver. Both she and Mason do their jobs clinically, but underneath it all you can feel their emotional turmoil raging. That’s not to say the movie is a downer. There are many small quiet victories, but nothing overwrought, and it’s intriguing to watch how the adolescents at the home play off each other. As for the care givers, for you as viewer the film becomes more than just a job. You start to care for these kids, root for them, hope for a better day for them.

It’s a spellbinding realism that Cretton tapped into. I can’t imagine there’s a human being out there that can’t be moved in some way by “Short Term 12.” If enough people get out and see it, the film, even Cretton and Larson, may be hearing their names called in January.

—- Tom Meek / Here and Sphere

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