In this highly intense environment, the experiences of counselors and the children they support are psychologically linked by close proximity, trust and support. Many scenes hinge on the way characters repress their own judgments to see the world from another's perspective. This gives the breezy narrative a measured but brave sense of purpose, most thoughtfully rendered in the quiet moments of reflection after a confession or regretful decision.
The filmmaker's own time spent working in such an environment informs this motif. Cretton knows firsthand what it's like to watch a child struggle with insecurity, identity and implosion. During the film's lovely opening-credits sequence, the camera hovers in doorways and hallways, observing these conflicted children sitting in silence, looking at an uncertain future. Their life is a perpetual waiting game.
Cretton's fictional surrogate is Grace (Brie Larson), a smart and caring veteran of the facility, called Short Term 12, who's dedicated to perfecting her own ability to listen. But in doing so, Grace has been carefully hiding from her own impending adulthood and past demons. That habit is beginning to take a toll on her romantic relationship with fellow counselor Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), mostly because she won't open up emotionally about her own childhood traumas.
Through Grace's patient eyes we meet the young people. Each is, in her or his own way, alive with hope despite experiencing some of life's most tragic hardships. Marcus (Keith Stanfield) is the eldest and by far the most volatile, sometimes tender and sometimes filled with rage. The juxtaposition is best on display during the intimate sequence where he shares his latest rap lyrics with Mason. "The happy pictures in my fuckin' head are faded," he sings, leaving his lone listener breathless.
But it's the tormented newcomer Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) to whom Grace relates most. Their evolving relationship provides the film with its central focus, but also its most convoluted moments. There's a point toward the end of Short Term 12 where the two find themselves on the precipice of trite melodrama. Thankfully, Cretton reins the story back in to a moving and human conclusion.
Short Term 12, which has been expanded into a feature from Cretton's 2008 short film of the same name, is at its best when examining the different modes of family existing outside the traditional realm. In most cases, the main characters don't find safety and support in the arms of blood relatives; it's friends and surrogate parents who end up nourishing a strong sense of self.
Late in the film, there's a climactic moment when Grace gets into an argument with her boss, Jack (Frantz Turner), regarding one child's increasingly grim situation. "We're not here to interpret tears," Jack argues, driving Grace into a fit of rage. Like its hero, Short Term 12 spends its entire running time subverting this very clinical idea, proving the human cost of relying too much on a practical or institutional diagnosis.
Short Term 12—which opens Friday, Sept. 13, at Hillcrest Cinemas, Arclight La Jolla and AMC Fashion Valley—resonates so strongly thanks in large part to its mosaic of absorbing performances by experienced actors and newcomers alike. Their faces and words express so much, and Cretton asks us to listen carefully. We get to know them well, their vulnerabilities, weaknesses and strengths. In the end, we see them not as individuals, but pieces of a flourishing extended family that's always welcoming to new members.