This indie gem you missed is currently streaming on Netflix.
Every now and again in movie-land, a precious gem flies under the radar despite an overwhelmingly positive response from critics and audiences alike. Short Term 12, a powerful indie film about troubled teenagers in a group home (available for streaming on Netflix), is just such a gem.
The story – based on Destin Cretton’s real-life experience working in a group home – follows a young hipster-esque couple navigating the emotional and physical turbulence of supervising a group of heavily medicated and deeply wounded teenagers.
The starring teens deliver an unexpectedly authentic and heartrending performance: there’s Sammy, the taciturn redhead who occasionally drapes himself in an American flag and sprints away from the facility screaming at the top of his lungs; Marcus, an aspiring rapper who hides a childhood filled with drug dealing and abuse behind a tough exterior; and Jayden, an insolent newcomer whose arrival shakes up the already shaken home even more.
Brie Larson gives a poignant performance as Grace, the tender-hearted supervisor struggling to keep everyone in line, and John Gallagher, Jr. shines as Grace’s charmingly chill boyfriend and coworker, Mason, who loves her deeply but can’t make heads or tails of her interior life.
These two gentle souls clearly care for and understand the kids in a way that the awkward newcomer Nate (played by Rami Malek) will never will be able to. Wet behind the ears and eager to help “underprivileged children,” Nate’s bubble is quickly burst by Grace’s rugged pragmatism, the kind one often finds on the front lines of social work: “Remember, you’re not their parent, you’re not their therapist,” she counsels him. “You’re here to create a safe environment and that’s it.” The kids, Grace knows, need first things first: and the first thing they need is safety.
But, far from being mere security guards, Grace and Mason possess a deep sense of solidarity with these warring hearts and wandering minds. Whenever one of the kids has an outburst, they lock arms with them and drag them to the floor, waiting for them to calm down while facing the same direction – a simple move that speaks volumes. And when Grace sits with Jayden to hear her short story, Jayden begins to realize that this person is not only there out of obligation, but out of a sense of shared suffering. Like grace itself, Grace doesn’t pretend to undo Jayden’s pain, but instead invites her out into communion and true love despite it; and Grace, Jayden is surprised to learn, not only understands her – she’s been exactly where she’s been.
That story – Grace’s story – is the lynchpin of Short Term 12. Everything in the film, in some way, harkens back to her interior struggle, and to a fateful decision that threatens to deepen her sorrow.
Low on budget and big on heart, Cretton’s camera introduces us to a whole host of complex and intriguing characters whose wounds linger with us long after the credits. Like another recent film, it testifies to what Pope Francis has termed the “throwaway culture,” a milieu which sacrifices countless victims on the altars of sexiness and success, especially on society’s margins.
But Short Term 12 uplifts as it devastates. It’s a beautiful affirmation of life, and a reminder that even the smallest acts of love are anything but short term.
Matthew Becklo is a husband and father-to-be, amateur philosopher, and cultural commentator at Aleteia and Word on Fire. His writing has been featured in First Things, The Dish, and Real Clear Religion.