The title of the quietly overwhelming new drama “Short Term 12” refers to a county-run residential facility, set in a generic Los Angeles nowheresville, that houses troubled teenagers while they’re between court dates or foster homes or treatment centers. Sometimes they’re there for a week, sometimes for years. It’s a limbo, and that has its own special challenges and benedictions, both for the kids who pass through and the young staffers — most not much older than their charges — who work there.
Writer-director Destin Cretton was one of those staffers once. In 2008 he poured his experiences into a short film of the same title, and it’s pretty near a perfect thing — a 21-minute drama that observes and aches but never judges. It won all sorts of festival awards and is available on iTunes; you should check it out. And then you should go see this new feature version, which is very, very good without being quite as perfect, in ways that reflect back on how and why we tell stories about our lives and our better intentions.
The central figure in “Short Term 12” version 2.0 is Grace (Brie Larson), the facility’s general manager. (In the short, the character was a man, played by Brad William Henke.) Grace has a cool head, a big heart, and she’s terrific at dealing with crises — one of those eerily capable givers who probably has had to overcome some damage herself. She’s involved in a not very down-low relationship with co-worker Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), a shaggy joker whose patience comes to seem saintly over the course of the film. As in the short there’s a new staffer, the well-meaning Nate (Rami Malek), who learns the lay of the land along with the audience. “You have to be an [expletive] before you can be their friend,” Grace cautions him.
“Short Term 12” folds us gently into its cinderblocked “safe environment,” introducing us to the schedule and rules that provide structure, and to the adolescents who need them. Marcus (Keith Stanfield), a prostitute’s son who writes raps that veer between tenderness and rage, is turning 18 and will have to leave soon; he’s not happy about it. Sammy (Alex Calloway) is an elfin redhead who explodes in furious bursts and then retreats back into shyness. New arrival Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) is a cynical rich girl with a distant father and scars up and down her legs.
What’s immediately disarming about the movie is that it focuses not on the kids’ dramas — and on the ways Hollywood tends to resolve them in time for the end credits — but on the low-key hum of daily interaction the facility provides. The meds and room searches, yes, but also the morning meetings with their in-jokes, the small feuds, the unexpected alliances. Mason opens the film with a spectacular anecdote about tailing an AWOL teen across the city — the staffers can’t touch the kids once they leave the facility — while fighting off the effects of a particularly virulent taco, and the running gag (as it were) is that every kid in the place knows the story. It’s why they love him and trust him. Behind everything here is so much loss. Cretton is wise enough to lean harder on the small, more human moments than on the traumas the characters know are waiting to pounce.
But he’s also making a feature-length film, and he has to fill in the narrative ellipses that made the short “Short Term 12” so good. If you haven’t seen that earlier version, you won’t notice the padding in some scenes, or the slightly forced romantic banter between Grace and Mason. But you may still feel the hand of the director-writer in the backstory that now makes Grace disturbingly complicit in her dealings with Jayden. And you may regret the need for feature-length movies to tie things up and send us out feeling the world has changed, when the point of the short (not to mention life itself) is that there’s always another wrecked child coming in the door, and the wreckage doesn’t always go away that easily.
Yet — and this is the fulcrum both versions of “Short Term 12” balance successfully on — sometimes it does. Late in the feature, Mason attends the wedding anniversary of his own foster parents, and the scene is a teary, happy celebration of grown children, of all different sizes and shapes, toasting the two people who saved them. That sequence feels honest and earned, while the climax of Grace’s situation feels forced in comparison. No fault of Larson, who portrays the shifting sensitivities of a complex woman with delicacy and nerve. No fault of anyone, really, least of all Cretton. He just loves this place and these people so much, he wanted to give us more of them. For that, we should be grateful.