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Short Term 12

Jeremy Clarke

Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton
Cert 15, 98 mins

Set in and around a group home for troubled teens, Short Term 12 began life as a 20 minute short for the director Destin Daniel Cretton, inspired by time he had spent working at a real life facility like the one he so deftly portrays here. Winning the Jury Prize at Sundance 2009, Cretton decided to expand his short into a feature length script. This practice often leads to ideas that work well as a short being stretched into an overlong feature that soon outstays its welcome. Here, however, the original's expansion takes advantage of the multiple character-driven subject matter so that the resultant feature proves compelling.

At once an ensemble piece and an intense character study, its main protagonist is Grace (Brie Larson), the young woman who is the home's supervisor and very good at her job - in part because she, like her client group, has had a difficult, troubled past. You wouldn't know it from her working life but away from the workplace - where the couple keep their relationship under wraps - Grace lives with partner Mason (John Gallagher, Jr), a member of her facility's staff. While their home life is both simple and intimate, Grace sometimes holds back from her partner; events in her personal history have taken their toll - she can't bring herself to talk about them with anyone. Not even her boyfriend.

That changes, though, when the home takes charge of Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), a particularly difficult girl who has issues with her father, self-harms and has been through several homes already. Something about Jayden's situation resonates with Grace, who begins to tell her new charge things she's never previously admitted to another living soul.

Rising star Larson brings just the right combination of toughness and fragility to Grace. She's ably supported by a hugely talented cast of young unknowns. Gallagher is a convincing Mason, Dever is suitably grounded as the troubled Jayden. The supporting cast are good too. Keith Stanfield plays Marcus, an 18-year-old soon to leave the facility for the outside world, as an emotional time bomb who can go off at any time. Alex Calloway as Sammy plays with dolls as a means of connecting to his absent sister. While much of the credit for the film's brilliance should go to the writing, there's an edginess to these and other performances which really gets under the skin of their characters' collective, in-limbo, institutionalised lives.

It's been said that film making consists of around 80 per cent writing and 15 per cent casting: here's a screenplay on which has been expended considerable effort, experience and honesty. Much care, too, has been taken at the casting stage. All of it pays off in one of this year's unexpected gems, a film which might not look and sound like much from the outside but which turns out to be a terrific and highly enjoyable piece of work.