Judge Gordon Sullivan is looking for someplace to do some long-term thinking.
"Discovering truth and humor in unexpected places."
I hope that 2013 will be remembered as the tipping point, when everyone realized that films helmed by female characters could attract everyone to the box office. No longer just the province of the women's demographic (a la Sex and the City), mainstream films in 2013 like Frozen and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire showed that the world will go see stories about women and girls just as they will stories front by men and boys. Though indie film is far from perfect, a picture like Short Term 12 reminds us that films anchored by strong female leads have long been the province of independent film. Thanks to a stellar performance by Brie Larson and assured direction from Destin Cretton, Short Term 12 transcends its roots in melodrama to become an oddly affecting indie portrait.
Grace (Brie Larson, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) works as a supervisor at Short Term 12, a group home for teens having trouble in the system. She has a boyfriend she loves in co-worker Mason (John Gallagher Jr., The Newsroom), she's good at her job, and things seems to be going well for her. Then she finds out she's pregnant, and a new girl with big problems comes to stay at Short Term 12, complicating her formerly simple life.
Many people get confused and think that wonder is the highest feeling to which art can aspire. In other words, to leave the audience asking "How did they do that?" I would argue, however, that it takes even more skill to explain to the audience what's being done and still pull them in. Such is the case with Short Term 12. From the opening scene, with its easy dialogue between a group of seasoned staffers and a newbie, it's obvious how and where this film is going to go. The story that one of the seasoned members tells involves him defecating himself, so immediately we know this will not be a whitewashed portrait of foster care. However, all the staffers are warm and laughing, letting us know this will not be a cynical takedown of the foster system. The camera roams around, seemingly handheld and following character after character, nimble and responsive. There's a low-budget, fly-on-the-wall feel to the presentation. We know from the beginning that this is going to be a naturalistic indie drama with some serious feel-good potential.
In moments like this I'm inclined to be cynical. I know I'm being lead to a particular emotional level, and I want to resist. The strength of Short Term 12 is that it manages to overcome exactly those suspicions. Most of that is down to an impressive performance by Brie Larson. She's the center of the narrative, and it's through her eyes that we see the world of Short Term 12 and its denizens. She's a perfectly rounded character, able to hold her own as the in-charge supervisor without sacrificing her more emotional moments in more personal settings. The rest of the cast support her ably. John Gallagher Jr. is especially good as Mason, but the teens deserve a shout-out for their surprising naturalism. The rest of the success of the picture lies with the fact that Cretton lets his technique fall into the background. Though the first scene announces the handheld indie cred, for the most part the film lets that be enough, not rubbing the audience's nose in the "realness" of the camerawork.
Short Term 12 (Blu-ray) is also solid. The 1.85:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer is clean and bright. The color scheme is slightly desaturated, but detail is strong throughout. Black levels aren't the deepest, but they are consistent. For an indie-style feature, the flick looks really good. The DTS-HD 5.1 audio track is similarly impressive. Dialogue is clean and clear, and there's impressive fidelity in the musical cues. The surrounds even get a bit of use during more chaotic scenes in the home.
Extras start with a set of deleted scenes that largely flesh out character moments, offering 22 minutes of extra scenes. We then get three featurettes. The first focuses on the making of the film, the second on its music, and the third on a screening of the film attended by the cast and crew. The feature is based on a short film, and that original short is included here as well, which is a welcome addition that allows us to see how the narrative developed. Finally, there's a set of teasers and trailers for the film, along with information about "outreach partners" for foster care. There's also a DVD copy of the film in this release as well.
Of course not everyone will be as won over by the pleasures of Short Term 12 as I was. Certainly some will see it as a cynical manipulation of character to create a bogus "feel good" drama, or find some of the handheld filmmaking distracting.
Short Term 12 is a fine indie drama that has some wonderful moments of humor and pathos. Though it deals with big, weighty issues like parenting and abuse, the film will leave most viewers lighter for having seen it. It's worth a rental for anyone who wants to see a well-acted take on smaller human moments, and fans can pick up this Blu-ray with confidence.
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