Review: Short Term 12 (2013)

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Director: Destin Cretton
Screenwriter: Destin Cretton
Based on the short film of the same name by Destin Cretton
Cast: Brie Larson, John Gallagher Jr, Rami Malek, Frantz Turner, Kaitlyn Dever, Keith Stanfield, Kevin Hernandez & Alex Calloway
Runtime: 96 min // Certificate: 15

On paper, this is the perfect film. It explores a difficult subject matter, it stars Brie Larson – an actor who has gone from strength to strength in recent years – and it seems to have gotten some rave reviews from a number of people I trust rather a lot. It is – to get the positive stuff out of the way – a well-acted film that is carried through its numerous rough patches by Brett Pawlak’s beautiful cinematography. Furthermore, it is a film that attempts (however poorly) to balance harrowing drama with the occasional burst of comedy, and I always appreciate such an approach.

Alas, it is also – and primarily – a film in which unrealistic characters navigate their way through unrealistic situations, thus its entire raison d’etre is completely undermined. Cretton’s script exudes a falseness that demeans every single aspect of this theoretically harrowing story, so much so that the film manages to be ridiculous yet, at the same time, downright predictable. From the moment it starts you can tell how it’ll all pan out, so potent is the air of fatalism that permeates through the screenplay, and though the inevitable nature of the final outcome might suit the general cynicism of the film’s central conceit, it becomes a serious issue when it’s all so heavy-handedly signposted. Cretton doesn’t miss a single opportunity to batter his audience into submission, so much so that I half-expected him to pop up at some point and shout “THESE PEOPLE ARE SAD AND DAMAGED, WHY AREN’T YOU CRYING!” Not that he needed to of course; the music was doing a good enough job of telling me exactly how I should be feeling all on its own.

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And therein lays the main problem; this is a film that is so obsessed with wringing emotion out of its audience that it completely fails to offer them anyone or anything to invest in. There are a few moments, of course, that are beautiful and heart-warming, but the film works so hard to attain them that it all feels almost offensively convoluted. Rather than allowing the story to develop naturally, Cretton indulges in stale, unimaginative melodrama to drag things along to their preordained conclusion. This is particularly grating in the latter half of the film when a “twist” – or, rather, a motive – is introduced to explain the actions of one of the characters. It’s not just unnecessary, it’s also patronising; I mean come on. To those who have seen it; what was the point in such a hackneyed explanation? Is it so difficult to just write a character that cares for the sake of caring? It all just feels so false, so cheap and so utterly lazy.

The characters are all – without exception – insecure, broken or damaged in one way or another, yet not one of them is remotely convincing. They’ve all been written with an agenda in mind and, as such, it’s nigh on impossible to care about them. Cretton’s approach strikes me as somewhat perverse; his characters are all – for lack of a better word – idealised. Sure, they’re physically scarred and emotionally damaged but hey, don’t worry, they’re also incredibly talented. None of them are just your average, common-or-garden individuals who’ve been through some awful shit. Oh no, that’s not enough apparently; they also have to demonstrate some worth. All of the characters are artistic, philosophical and oh-so-quirky, resulting in a film that is practically drowning in its own inauthenticity.

It’s a terrible shame too because Brie Larson in particular acts her heart out in a film that is just excruciatingly self-satisfied. Short Term 12 offers little respite not because it wants to be realistic but because it wants to make its audience cry. Cretton plunders the book of all its tricks in his attempt to make the audience feel sad, yet all he did was make me incredibly angry. Worse still, that anger wasn’t directed at the injustices that his characters had suffered, it was directed at him. I’m furious that a film about the mental / physical / emotional (delete as appropriate) abuse of children resorts to such crass emotional manipulation to get a reaction out of its audience. It undermines the horrific abuse that millions of children right across the planet suffer every damn day; it’s alright though, most of those children don’t rap or draw or write short stories so who gives a fuck about them right?

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Furthermore, Cretton’s attempt to create a “one woman against the World” arc, in which the main character is treated as a hero while everyone else is made out to be distant and cold, does little to help things. In a sense it’s great that Grace is the main focus because Brie Larson is brilliant in the role but like all of the other main players she feels false, not least because of her character’s background. Her relationship with Jayden (Dever) is sweet enough, as is her camaraderie with Marcus (Stanfield), yet I once again got the impression that none of it was real. She’s a likable character – in fact, they all are – but in a sense that isn’t much of an achievement. After all, if abused children and the people that care for them aren’t likable then who is? It takes a lot more than subject matter to make a film engaging and unfortunately, Destin Cretton – for all of his undoubtedly good intentions – simply fails to grasp this.

I so wanted to love Short Term 12, really I did, but I just couldn’t buy into a film that thrives on dishonesty and predictability. Each beat of the plot was obvious, each character motivation was contrived and each emotion was dragged from the audience without a single hint of sensitivity. There was so much promise here that I’m gutted to see it so criminally wasted. I appreciate it for the performances but little else; it’s a menial film with little to say, which is wholly unbefitting of the topics at hand and is, in turn, terribly disappointing.

Tl;dr – I agree with David Morrissey…