The horrendously titled Short Term 12, a no-star independent film about a young woman working at a foster-care facility in Los Angeles, is receiving rapturous notices of a kind its young writer-director Destin Cretton could hardly have dreamt of. It has a 98 percent positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and almost all of the reviews the site aggregates are unqualified raves.
The film’s leading player, a 23-year-old named Brie Larson, is getting the same treatment the then-20-year-old Jennifer Lawrence got for her breakout role in another dreadfully titled indie, Winter’s Bone, in 2010. That part secured Lawrence an Oscar nomination and set her on the path to her unrivaled present standing as a prestige Oscar winner (Silver Linings Playbook) and action-movie superstar (The Hunger Games). Watch Larson rise.
She’s very good, no question, but the fascinating thing about Short Term 12 is how utterly false it is—and how its affectedly raw and unvarnished “indie” style has masked its meretriciousness in the eyes of critics who really ought to know better. Short Term 12 resembles nothing so much as those 1970s television shows in which committed young teachers work with disadvantaged youth—Room 222, Lucas Tanner, The White Shadow. In those shows, which congratulated themselves on showing a part of America TV viewers had never seen before, every dramatic situation is resolved happily by the time the final credits roll.
The same is true of Short Term 12, which reserves its tragic stories for anecdotes told by characters and makes sure the characters we do meet are all pretty much fine. Even the most dramatic moment—a suicide attempt—is basically taken back in the movie’s final moments as we’re told the person who attempted it was seen only a few weeks later drinking cappuccino with a beautiful girl. In fact, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Short Term 12 becomes a television series; its concluding scene has the exact rhythms and style of the end of a pilot.
The falsity is probably necessary, because there can be no more depressing subject than the one the film concentrates on—children so abused and broken they cannot even be sent into foster homes. To tell the story of a dead-end facility like this one without any leavening would be to make something unwatchable.
Even so, the degree to which Cretton pretties it all up is kind of stunning. There are many people who would kill to live at Short Term 12. Everybody who works there is nice; the kids are pretty gentle and kind to each other; everybody gets his own room; there’s drawing, TV if you behave, and whiffleball games. The counselors make you cupcakes for your birthday. It’s like a summer camp, only indoors.
Grace, played by Larson, is the chief counselor. She’s nice and calm but tough when she needs to be. She is harboring several deep secrets that keep her from being completely open and honest with her dream-of-a-boyfriend, Mason—a perfect, unthreatening, loving, self-effacing, sexy fellow who cooks for her and watches out for her and loves her. All he wants is for her to “let him in,” but she won’t. It would be more believable if she were resisting him because he’s such an incredible wimp where she is concerned, but of course the explanation is far more clichéd than that.
Anyone who has watched a mere 15 minutes of the programming on the Lifetime channel since 1991 can write the script: Grace was abused as a child and now has trust issues, and the trust issues have reached a crisis level because she has found out she is pregnant; meanwhile, a teenage girl has moved into Short Term 12 who brings up all the past emotions Grace has been struggling to subdue . . .
If Short Term 12 had been made as a Lifetime movie, no one would have paid the slightest attention to it. Moreover, the moment that reduces everyone to jelly—when a crying Grace sees her unborn baby on a monitor—is exactly the same moment that makes anyone cry in any movie in which there’s a scene of a woman getting an ultrasound.
But Short Term 12 was shot using Red Digital Cinema, the revolutionary system that allows filmmakers to shoot in natural light with tiny and relatively inexpensive equipment while retaining a cinematic look. Though the Red camera is used on major productions—by A-list directors Steven Soderbergh and David Fincher especially—the slightly grainy and washed-out appearance gives off a handmade, do-it-yourself, passion-project vibe. This vibe, more than anything else, is what has tricked cineastes into thinking they’re seeing something profound when they’re just seeing tonight’s episode of Grace the Social Worker.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.