This one is a pretty hard R. I'm not saying it's brutal or anything, but there is some very uncomfortable content. Also, the protagonist often considers having an abortion. It's one of those "light in the darkness" movies, which means there has to be quite a bit of darkness.
DIRECTOR: Destin Daniel Cretton
I had never heard of this movie before one of my students listed it as one of her favorite films. I'm scrolling through Hulu and there it was. Sorry, Lauren, we're watching this movie. (I was far more tactful than that and she ended up really loving the movie.) I have seen versions of this movie before. If you want to know what you are getting into before really knowing too much about it, this feels like a director's passion project and he's got some indie cred to him. He ended up directing The Glass Castle this year, but just to tell you how hip he is, his first major film was a documentary called I Am Not a Hipster. The title alone should give you insight into his aesthetics. The good news is that it really kind of works.
Short Term 12 handles mental illness in adolescents the way I wanted To the Bone to handle it. If you read that review, you'll know that I mostly liked the movie, but thought many of the moments seemed a little Hallmark-y for me. Life was dirty, but not too dirty. This movie kind of has the same problem, but approaches it from a more realistic perspective. There are moments where Bree Larson's Grace has almost magical ways to crack the exterior of these kids, but I like where Cretton takes this character instead. These characters aren't repaired for long periods of time. Whenever Grace makes headway with these kids, the next moment is another challenge for her. That may sound like this movie is devoid of hope or joy, but the movie's overall message is that help is possible as long as everyone is willing to work for it. That's kind of important. I know To the Bone fans will argue that the same message is in that movie as well and I can't deny that. This movie just managed to sell it a little better. Also, focusing on an adult as the protagonist kind of helps. (Maybe I'm transferring actually validity into something relatable. Maybe the only reason I think this is better is because I relate to Grace and Mason more than I do to Jaden.) The movie is about joy and pain and having these concepts that may come so easily to some and not to others is heartbreaking. Adding to the fact that Grace herself is permanently broken is interesting. Grace has her life together so much that she can help these kids who have been broken, but she lives with the fact that she was broken at one point and she can never be repaired. LIGHT SPOILER: There is a conversation at the end of the movie talking about one of the kids that Grace and Mason took care of and it is so touching. But keeping in mind all of the sadness that Grace was experiencing, that story maintains a bittersweet quality, knowing that this character who was so trouble will have to work so hard for the rest of his life. That's a bummer, but it also rings true compared to having people yell the f-word in the rain.
The structure of this film handles exposition like a champ. There is so much that needs to be explained about the nature of this facility to its audience. The rules at Short Term 12 are very specific and it would be tempting to offer a ton of direct exposition. They do some, but having Rami Malek as Nate serve as an avatar for the uninitiated is pretty genius. Nate is such a great stand-in for an audience that I have to applaud it. I know, his convention has been done before. But outside of the fact that Nate is inexperienced at this job, his heart is in the same place as the audience's is. He wants to help to the best of his ability. He is feeling the same things that we feel, only with more spit. He doesn't understand the rules and he makes natural mistakes. He makes the same mistakes I made working with troubled teens. I saw me in him and that was awesome. He's definitely not the center of the story. Grace and Mason hold the audience's attention more than Nate does, but having Nate's B story in there keeps the story rooted in its setting. The only real bummer part was that Stephanie Beatriz's role was fairly undefined. Part of this was that I really like Stephenie Beatriz on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, but also the fact that she was just kind of hanging around and "yes-anding" everything. She served more as a conjunction for Mason's stories and that's not very fulfilling in the end.
If I had to criticize the movie harshly, I have to say that Jaden as the focus was perhaps not the best choice. Grace recognizes similar patterns in Jaden, which makes her the perfect person to listen to her. I get that. That is interesting and develops Grace's character in a way that makes the movie engaging. However, Jaden is a bit too lovable. (There is one really cool moment with Jaden where they risked making her unlikable and I loved this part.) But there is a balance. Jaden has to be a troubled teen who is in desperate need for help, but she's a bit too cool for school. On top of that, she is being contrasted to Marcus, played by Lakeith Stanfield, who crushes it. I get it. People dealing with mental illness have varying degrees of severity. Marcus is at a 10 and it seems like Jaden is at a 5. Jaden's problems are very real and need to be addressed immediately. But when Marcus's disorder is juxtaposed to Jaden's, it is hard as an audience member to sympathize for Jaden. Marcus's B story (C story? Is Nate really the B story?) is so heartbreaking that I want to scream at Jaden. And that's probably pretty true. That's where I would make my mistake. Trying to rank people's problems is the wrong move, but I can't help it when I don't have a personal relationship with these characters. So is it a mistake? Maybe. But like I do with most of my reviews, this is probably more my fault than it is anyone else's.
Is this a love story? Maybe. I may have accidentally shown my wife another rom-com. It is a far removed rom-com though. The movie genuinely made me laugh a lot, but I would have to be generous to even label it a dramedy. Grace and Mason's relationship is extremely touching, especially with the knowledge that Mason and Grace both were children of a similar program to the one's they are now mentoring. I didn't know what to think about Mason when I first started watching the movie. I thought he was going to be the loser manchild, but I was really glad to see him step up to be the most self-actualized character in the movie. He grounds the movie with something solid when everything seems to be constantly shifting. It is odd how strong of a character he is throughout this movie. Perhaps he has grown strong just constantly being in this environment. We need Mason to be the character he is for the movie to work, but I do sympathize with him. I see how much he is hurting, but he is not allowed to break for the structure of the movie to work. We often see this in romantic comedies, when one character has to be completely understanding of the other's quirks or idiosyncrasies. In this case, Grace has genuine psychological trauma and that goes beyond what comedies provide. Regardless, the movie works as an examination of relationships. I stated in the intro that the abortion issue comes up. I'm vocally pro-life and I'll always be vocally pro-life. The movie does encourage empathy for Grace for one of her background stories. It's a moment of love the sinner, hate the sin. There are times I begged a fictional character not to go through with it, but that might just be a human thing sooner than a pro-life thing.
The movie is very solid. I can see how this can be someone's favorite movie. I don't think it'd ever make my favorites list, but it is great. Bree Larson always knocks it out of the park (except in Skull Island, which I'll be talking about soon) and the indie vibe really hits a sweet spot sometimes. Be ready to laugh and cry because it will be dark and light. You've felt this before. Just be ready to feel it again.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.