by Tony Dayoub
Such is the power of Brie Larson's performance that it is, I assure you, what people will remember Short Term 12 for, both at the end of the year and perhaps far into the future. Larson has had some memorable turns before. She played Scott Pilgrim's bleached blond ex-grrlfriend Envy in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World; Molly, the popular high-schooler mixed up with a small-time dealer in last year's 21 Jump Street; and Cassidy, the level-headed ex-girlfriend of slick alcoholic Sutter in this year's The Spectacular Now. Get the picture? Larson is a talented actor who keeps getting stuck with pivotal, but still second-tier, supporting parts in some fairly good films. In Short Term 12, an astonishingly unpretentious indie about a foster-care facility for wayward teens, Larson gets to take center stage as Grace, an astute but conflicted counselor. And it is the viewer who gets to reap the rewards.
Destin Daniel Cretton's film begins with Grace and fellow counselor Mason (John Gallagher, Jr.), her kind-hearted boyfriend, welcoming a new staff member, Nate (Rami Malek). In sharp contrast to the shell-shocked and naïve Nate, Grace is confident, experienced and someone both staff and residents look up to. Problems Grace has to deal with include everything from mediating conflicts like the one between ballbreaking youngster Luis (Kevin Hernandez) and the reserved Marcus (Keith Stanfield) to making sure the troubled Sammy (Alex Calloway) doesn't make it outside the gate, and legally outside of their care, on his umpteenth jailbreak sprint. An unexpected pregnancy and news that her own father is about to be released from jail soon makes it apparent that Grace is as screwed up as her charges, just better at keeping her troubles bottled up inside. After new girl Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) joins the facility something familiar and disturbing about her blows Grace's confidence, and Short Term 12 becomes an inquiry into just who Grace really is.
Considering how internalized her performance is required to be and the restraint Cretton manages to exert over the volatile situations Grace faces, it is amazing how potent Larson is as the stressed facility aide. Never crossing the line into melodramatics, Larson instead uses a series of two-hander scenes to delineate her character in relief to those of her co-stars. In other words, Grace is defined more by who she isn't than who she is, something that comes into sharp focus when Larson generously allows her costars to dominate in a scene. As I pointed out earlier, she certainly isn't a dilettante like Nate who makes the mistake of telling a room full of troubled adolescents that he's always wanted to work with "underprivileged kids." And she's not the happy go-lucky Mason, himself having been a child with a checkered past who happened to have ended up with a loving Latino couple as his foster parents.
Grace more closely identifies with Marcus who is about to turn 18, forcing him to leave the facility. He has lived there for a few years now (oversight neglect leads to many residents outstaying their 12 month term) and fears what life is like outside. The aspiring young rapper's outlook on life could apply to Grace and boils down to the thought communicated in the last stanza of a piece he wrote: "Look into my eyes so you know what it's like to live a life not knowing what a normal life's like." Grace isn't quite as institutionalized as poor Marcus, but she does thrive on the structure offered by the facility, preferring that over the comforting home life a new baby with Mason portends.
It's only when Jayden shows up that we finally begin to get a grip on Grace. And it's less because of what's in Short Term 12's script than because of the way Larson plays her. She becomes fidgety, withdrawn, and mirrors Dever's general affect and gestural behavior to draw a defining link between the two characters. Again Larson defers to her fellow actor in scenes where their two characters bond. But ultimately, with the help of Cretton's inserts (demonstrating how each tend to start cutting their skin open with their nails when they're under duress), Larson prevails. Movies are a game of minimalism. On screen, smaller performances laid out incrementally win out, not just catching the viewers' attention but holding it. It is how Larson succeeds at defining Grace in Short Term 12... she literally captivates us.