GoldDerby is a short-term foster-care centre for troubled teenagers, presided over by young supervisors — and secret couple — Grace (Larson) and Mason (Gallagher Jr.). The arrival of suicidal Jayden (Dever) forces Grace to process her own past and present — chiefly the baby she is covertly carrying.
In this media-saturated, internet-savvy age of film-going, it is practically impossible for a film to come out of nowhere and hit you right between the eyes. Enter Short Term 12, a film by a second-time director (Destin Cretton), featuring one up-and-coming actor (Brie Larson), a cast of unknowns and an unpromising subject (the day-to-day travails of a centre for troubled teenagers) that emerges as fresh, funny and moving. In short, the biggest surprise of 2013.
Movies are littered with Inspirational Teacher tropes, but writer-director Cretton (who worked in a similar centre) has no truck with any of them. The redemptions (if they occur at all) are fuzzy, the tenderness fused with toughness and the parallels between staff and kids lightly drawn. In fact, the moments where you feel it is going to descend into a wince-worthy Dangerous Minds morass — such as when lost boy Marcus (Keith Stansfield) expresses his problems in a rap — are the points when it really takes flight. When the smart, feisty but fragile self-harmer Jayden (a terrific Kaitlyn Dever) tells a story about an octopus and a shark — a thinly veiled allegory for her life — it has a shout for being the most riveting dialogue scene of the year.
In such a charged setting, sentiment is a nanosecond away, but Cretton steers a steady course, bathing the film in an optimistic, sunshine-y but never syrupy look and directing with 50 per cent grit (it starts with sharting) and 50 per cent grace (watch out for a bouncy castle). But he has not one but two aces in the hole: his meticulously crafted, sincere script that unfolds gradually, drip-feeding emotions and complexity so that every beat feels genuine; and Brie Larson who, while feeling completely part of the ensemble, builds into a whirling dervish of a performance, making Grace strong but scarred, damaged but compassionate. She, like the film, breaks your heart and raises your spirit in one fell swoop.
Short Term 12 is a miracle of a movie. Beautifully written and perfectly played, all of human life is here: the good, the bad, the messy and the uplifting.