What makes Sammy run? That’s perhaps the first question you’ll ask while watching “Short Term 12,” which opens with an embarrassing first-person anecdote that’s interrupted by the anguished energy of young would-be fugitive Sammy (Alex Calloway) as he bursts from the doors of a foster care facility for at-risk teenagers.
The story is told through the eyes of Grace, a twenty- something supervisor at a foster-care facility for at-risk teenagers. Passionate and tough, Grace is ...
Rating: R for language and brief sexuality
Length: 96 minutes
Released: August 23, 2013 Limited
Cast: Brie Larson, John Gallagher Jr., Stephanie Beatriz, Kaitlyn Dever, Alex Calloway
Director: Destin Cretton
Writer: Destin Cretton
Sammy, it turns out, is just one of several convincingly sketched supporting characters who occupy this foster facility. The prime focus is not on these wards of the state but on hopeful but wary Grace, played by Brie Larson, who ought to be a dark-horse candidate for a Best Actress Oscar nomination. Grace is a young staff supervisor who is almost the peer of her charges, as is her idealistic co-worker and boyfriend, Mason (John Gallagher Jr.). The symbolic names — Grace is seeking some sort of forgiveness and transcendence, Mason is a shaggy but solid foundation on which to build a relationship — are an indicator that writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton is not afraid to be uncool; he embraces the strong emotions that scare some indie filmmakers and that scar — in some cases literally — his young characters.
The result is a movie that is passionate, compassionate and has the ring of truth. It seems to be the product of someone intimately familiar (like Grace) with the lives of seriously troubled teens — someone who knows what it’s like “to live a life not knowing what a normal life’s like,” to quote the lyrics of a surly would-be rapper named Marcus (Keith Stanfield).
“Short Term 12” returns for a regular theatrical booking at the Malco Studio on the Square only six days after its screening during the Indie Memphis Film Festival, where it received a standing ovation and, on Sunday, the Audience Award for favorite narrative feature. Director Cretton attended, accompanied by actors Stanfield (a newcomer) and Kaitlyn Dever (a veteran, despite her youth, with credits that include “J. Edgar” and “The Spectacular Now”); Dever portrays another of the at-risk kids, a talented, sardonic artist whose particular circumstances strike a chord with Grace.
The performers make such a vivid impression that seeing them in person at the festival was as exciting as encountering much more familiar celebrities — it was as if Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts had walked onstage after the Indie Memphis screening of “August: Osage County.”
“Short Term 12” is “at-risk” itself; it risks corniness and cliché yet shrugs them off at every turn, thanks to the perfect pitch of the writing and performance, and to Cretton’s smart storytelling choices. Here, the shaky handheld camerawork that has become an indie convention (and a cover-up for a lack of style) has real purpose, as a visual corollary to the emotional instability of the kids and the so-called grown-ups. Even as certain moments convey an almost “ABC Afterschool Special”-esque earnestness, the movie accrues power.
When Sammy returns for a final scene that is both a visual bookend to the opening and a celebration of youthful possibility, the emotions hit like a sledgehammer to the heart: You may momentarily feel as winded and exhilarated as Sammy and Grace and Mason, racing toward the closing credits of what is one of the best films of the year.