Indie movies are a blessing and a curse. Blessing: filmmakers get artistic freedom without the constraints of production companies and big budgets, which allows someone with real vision to explore that vision and not the vision of whoever controls the money. Curse: sometimes that vision isn’t worth exploring in the first place, and the freedom goes straight to the director’s head, and he/she ends up sacrificing content to make excessively bleak movies with no plots, no characters, no dialogue, and pretty, albeit self-indulgent shot composition. Going into an indie movie blind is a dangerous game, but it can be incredibly rewarding from time to time.
Short Term 12 (2013)
The Plot: Grace (Brie Larson) supervises a residential treatment facility for troubled teens. It’s a tough job, but she’s just about figured it out, and she effectively improves the lives of the kids she works with. Her carefully constructed world is put to the test when, in the course of a couple days, she becomes pregnant and the facility gets a new visitor, Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), whose troubled life is a disturbing reflection of the traumatic past that Grace has been so desperate to forget. Now, confronting her own resurfacing issues and the harrowing problems of the teens she works with, Grace must consider whether she and her well-meaning boyfriend/coworker Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) are really prepared to bring a child into the world.
Short Term 12 is what all indie movies should aspire to be. It’s a smart, emotional, sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking, always genuine character study, with an easily-applicable message and a good screenplay. Destin Cretton, the writer/director, avoids self-indulgence and pretention simply because he loves Grace more than he loves himself. In fact, he loves all of the characters, including the tertiary characters, including the dumb ones, everyone. Grace is the primary focus of the story, and she’s sympathetic, though deeply flawed. At times, she allows her own pressing concerns to overshadow those of the kids, but she’s ready to drop everything for an emergency. She’s an easy character to relate to, but not just because she’s masterfully written. Brie Larson does an amazing job in what many critics are suggesting might be a breakout role for her. I’d be inclined to agree. Between the efforts of Larson and Cretton, Grace feels like a real person, and watching the movie feels like watching a section of her life. This is something that you might expect from watching something produced by seasoned actors and directors (I felt this way about Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips and Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave, but they’ve been in the game for a while). This is Larson’s first major leading role, and only Cretton’s second feature film. This level of quality so early in their careers bodes well.
That’s the other potential blessing of indie cinema: discovering new talent. The two most important teenagers also give stellar performances. Some of you may well recognize Kaitlyn Dever as Loretta McCready from Justified. Given her presence in that series, it shouldn’t come as a big surprise that she keeps up the good work in this film. She’s… ugh… I just looked it up… she’s seventeen years old. Damn. What am I doing with my life? She’s now at the awkward phase on the cusp of getting grown-up roles over child roles. This transitional period kills a lot of careers, but hopefully she’ll hang on. Although Dever’s character poses the greatest complication to Grace’s life, perhaps her most troubled kid is Marcus (Lakeith Lee Stanfield), who’s been living in the facility for a couple years and is about to turn eighteen, at which point he’ll be turned out into the dreaded real world to fend for himself. Stanfield’s realization of this character is stirring.
Somehow, despite the difficult subject matter, these actors and Cretton all seem to fully understand the pressures, trauma, and sufferings of their emotionally (and in many cases physically) injured characters. Short Term 12 is by no means an easy viewing experience. It’s hard to watch victims of child abuse attempt to find solace for nearly two hours, but it’s ultimately rewarding. Although it is a dark indie drama, and it doesn’t flinch away from certain uncomfortable realities, and although it verges on bleak at times, Cretton is cautious to never compromise his carefully cultivated atmosphere of hope. The film is as honest as its characters are in the opening sequences: Grace and Mason know that not all of the kids are going to make it. Not all of them will improve. That’s true both in the world of the movie and in the real world. Some of these kids will be defined by tragedy and will never overcome their problems, but all of them have a chance, and that’s a good start.