Despite this year’s disappointing, lacklustre, overwhelmingly safe London Film Festival – a festival so boring it felt like it’d been curated by the BFI’s Health and Safety officer, featuring not one but two Tom Hanks films (Oscar’s blandest winner, the cinematic equivalent of purple sprouting broccoli and quinoa) not to mention feted children’s space movie Gravity which lacked even the depth of 2012’s Barbie In A Mermaid Tale 2 (surely that should’ve been Mermaid Tail? They missed a trick there…) – hidden deep within the pages of the programme was its best film, an American Indie offering that’s already taken American critics and the SxSW festival by storm ... writer-director Cretton’s stunning, virtually perfect, Short Term 12.
Expanded from Cretton’s 2008 short, the titular Short Term 12 is a foster-care group home for vulnerable children and teenagers in crisis managed by Grace (the luminous Larson), the 20-something supervisor who is herself a veteran of the foster care system. Romantically involved with sweet fellow counsellor Mason (Gallagher Jr), she’s firm, fair and empathetic, the calm rock at the centre of life’s turbulent waters that the damaged kids in her charge can rely on – acting as mentor, surrogate big sister, disciplinarian and sometimes just referee.
Unable to fully commit to Mason and having just discovered she’s pregnant, Grace finds herself forced to try to heal her own wounds when tough new girl Jayden (Dever) arrives at the facility. Stubborn and vulnerable with a history of violence, self-harming and dangerous behaviour, Jayden inspires a powerful bond in Grace as she tries to reach the troubled teenager. But just maybe it’s the fragile, spiky Jayden who’ll set Grace free of her own long-buried demons.
Quietly devastating, cautiously optimistic and soaringly uplifting, Short Term 12 is quite simply the best film most people won’t see this year. It's a fantastic, heartbreaking, beautiful piece with wonderful performances from all its young actors – particularly Dever and the wonderful Stanfield, who also appeared in the short; both are great as two of Grace’s young charges – while Gallagher is lovable and sweet, a likable John Krasinski before he did that smug, irritating, middle-class hipster, abortion of film with Sam Mendes. But the film belongs to Larson, who’s a revelation as Grace – delivering a raw, honest performance that deserves to see her nudge aside perennial awards sluts Judi Dench, Cate Blanchett, Kate Winslet and Sandra Bullock and take home some bling.
While Larson is undeniably the film’s greatest strength, and the scenes between her and Dever are phenomenal as they bond over a shared history of cutting and kids’ tales of child abuse that are heartbreaking in their relaxed matter-of-factness, Cretton’s managed the near-impossible – creating a small, low-budget (so low in fact that one scene of vehicular mutilation involving a car and a baseball bat could only afford to be shot once) indie film that’s a genuinely affecting, emotional rollercoaster yet never falls into the usual smug, self-congratulatory traps. The script fizzes, unafraid of its at times dark material; one mentally and emotionally fragile, grieving little boy’s constant escape attempts forming a running joke that bookends the film and provides this year’s most joyously uplifting cinematic moment, and Cretton’s characters feel like real people groping towards adulthood as they bicker and laugh together, are touched by sadness and move on.
The most unashamedly affecting film you’ll see all year with the highest quota of "honest, it's just a piece of grit in my eye" moments, Short Term 12 is quite simply brilliant, a perfect little drama about everyday life and the transformative, redemptive power of love. If you’ve ever been a child or an adult, you owe it to yourself to see this film.
EXTRAS ★★ There's a behind-the-scenes featurette (22:05); a short film on The Forgiveness Project (6:50); and the theatrical trailer.