Troubled teenagers are an emotional minefield for filmmakers to cross; that specific area of raw heartbreak and anger can easily become manipulative, melodramatic, and, at worst, straight-up exploitative, tapping into a true type of trauma just to brush it away with feel-good, sitcom-style neatness. Luckily, director / screenwriter Destin Daniel Cretton taps into his own experiences working in a foster home, allowing him to strike the right balance between objectivity and sensitivity. The film could be a collection of canned "issues", with the tough details downplayed so the film could reach a broad audience, but Cretton focuses on his characters, and the real heartbreak and happiness that they experience.
The central character is Grace, and she genuinely feels like a complete person. At Short Term 12, Grace can always be seen reacting on three levels: responsible supervisor, Mason's significant other, and a person who keeps most of herself beneath the surface. When she meets Jayden, it's not a screenplay contriving to provide her with a foil, but a real connection between two people who feel individual and separate. Of course, while Cretton created Grace, it's impossible to overestimate how much Brie Larson brings to the table. Larson has scored with memorable supporting roles (Scott Pilgrim and 21 Jump Street), but here she ascends to another level, imbuing the picture with a warmth and radiance that resonates throughout. There's an authenticity to Short Term 12 that few films can capture, and a great deal of it stems from watching Larson process each thought and feeling in Grace's head.
That said, if Larson is the center of Short Term 12, there are plenty of significant players in orbit around her. Among the residents, Keith Stanfield stands out as Marcus, an 18-year-old on the verge of leaving ST12. Marcus is bitter and angry on the surface, but Stanfield's eyes are a well of sensitivity, and his voice contains a hint of terror, both of which say more about Marcus than his attitude. Jayden's sarcastic nature can make her seem more reserved than the others, but one of the film's most important scenes rests on Dever's shoulders, and it's one of the film's most powerful moments. Last but not least, Gallagher forms an appealing chemistry with Larson even when his material is a bit thin, and he delivers a speech with a message that is undoubtedly important to everyone who worked on the film.
As director, Cretton adopts a handheld style in keeping with a number of contemporary films, but there's a warmth to the images that informs the cinematography. The visuals don't suggest documentary-style aggressiveness, but a human and naturalistic eye, as if the film represents Cretton's point of view as another, unidentified staff member. Composer Joel West completes the package with a beautiful, tender score that really sets the tone for the picture, creating simple themes for characters out of just a few instruments. Despite the sparse nature of these compositions, each one is emotionally satisfying, perfectly emphasizing Cretton's intended emotional beats. Short Term 12 is one of 2013's best films, a small and personal story that tackles tough traumas, yet never feels anything less than hopeful.
The Video and Audio
The real star of this disc is the sound. Although the film is basically all dialogue, this uncompressed audio really skillfully handles the nuances and texture of the sound. There's a richness to the way the voices sound that feels extremely natural, drawing the viewer into the reality of the film. The track also has Joel West's wonderful music to deal with, which is presented with equal care, each note offering the prefect degree of vibrancy and life. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing and Spanish and French subtitles are also included.
Although the film only runs 96 minutes, ten deleted scenes (22:37) are included. Most of these are actually pretty good, and provide small but compelling additional facets to scenes that remained in the movie. Only two were wisely trimmed: an extended party montage that is cute but unnecessary, and an alternate therapy scene where Grace tries a visualization exercise. It's clear how her vision is intended to work emotionally and symbolically, but it's pretty obvious why it didn't work out, based on what she envisions literally.
Three featurettes are included. "Behind-the-Scenes" (22:06) is a casual making-of documentary offering glimpses into life on the set throughout the month-long shoot. Cast and crew are interviewed at random, all of whom offer brief glimpses into their process, and the footage is presented in the order of production. Highlights include goldfish wrangling, glass breaking and stunt doubles, and celebratory lais for the cast members who wrap. (Side note: volume fluctuates wildly in this piece, which is a bit annoying.) "Making the Music" (6:32) is a surprisingly thorough examination of how Cretton and composer Joel West found themes in the music and structured it to fit the film in reference to characters and ideas. The piece also concludes with footage of the band The Tree Ring performing the score-like song "Welcome to Short Term 12". Finally, "Cast and Crew Screening featuring The Shivers" (2:25) is a brief look at many of the people involved celebrating the finished film, as well as Cretton announcing the pickup by Cinedigm, backed by a song by the band in question -- it's basically a music video.
The disc rounds out with an original theatrical trailer and two TV spots for Short Term 12. There is also a screen of foster care "outreach partners" for any viewers who want to help foster youth. It's a shame that Cretton and Larson weren't given the chance to record an audio commentary to round out the package, but what made the cut is still decent.