Surviving ‘Short Term 12’: Don’t get attached

Destin Daniel Cretton’s feature-length film “Short Term 12” comes with a warning label: don’t get attached.

Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) — one of the film’s new temporary residents — delivers the message during a group meeting.

“Please don’t be offended if I’m not very friendly,” she says, “but I’m going to be living with my dad soon, and I don’t really like wasting time on short-term relationships. So, you know, it’s nothing personal.”

You’d do well to heed her warning. You only have 96 minutes with her and the rest of the characters of “Short Term 12.” But Cretton and the actors make it hard to not get attached.

Cretton’s film, which is an extension of his earlier short with the same title, begins outside Short Term 12, a children’s home and mental health facility. Grace (Brie Larson) and her boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) are inducting you and the newest supervisor, Nate (Rami Malek), with horror stories of being on the job.

“Remember you’re not their parent, you’re not their therapist, you’re here to create a safe environment and that’s it,” Grace reminds you.

But that’s difficult advice to remember as you spend the day breaking up fights, administering medicine,  soothing temper tantrums, providing emotional support, and occasionally chasing runaways.

The kids in your care have lived through too much and have grown up too fast. Their protectors have failed them and you’re their part-time counselor/friend/mentor/role model — trying to rehabilitate their trust and faith in the world.

It’s a hard and taxing job, full of emotional and physical turmoil. Every time you take a small step forward, you seem to take two steps back. And despite all the progress you make, you know that Short Term 12 is only a temporary band-aid for all the falls they have experienced as well as the ones they still will.

“Short Term 12” will make you angry and frustrated and helpless at times, but it’ll make you laugh as well as cry. That’s a testament to the strong and sincere performances from its talented ensemble cast of young actors. Keith Stanfield brings powerful and raw emotion as Marcus, a soon-to-be-18-year-old about to be uprooted from his home. Dever is sarcastic and witty as Jayden, whose cool exterior masks a tragedy at home. And Gallagher Jr. and Larson are tender, patient, humorous and supporting while sharing snippets of their own broken lives.

Compared to Cretton’s melodramatic 22-minute short, the feature-length film is tempered with more humor. Cretton wisely adds more exposition to the film,  framing painful and traumatic experiences with humor and humility.

Meanwhile, Brett Pawlak’s shaky cinematography makes the film seem even more authentic — as if you’re watching a home movie rather than a film. His shots, like the characters, aren’t perfect, but they’re tangible and human and feel very, very real.

Still, you know you’re being emotionally manipulated. Cretton’s smart and fishing for sympathy. But even as you try not to get too attached, “Short Term 12’s” emotional hook snares your heart and pulls.

“Short Term 12” was written and directed by Destin Daniel Cretton.

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