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It's easy to make fun of a certain kind of therapeutic language — the kind you hear all through the movie Short Term 12.
That title comes from the name of a group home for abused and/or unstable teens. Early on, a young counselor named Grace (Brie Larson) tells one smart-mouthed kid that "your attitude is not helping either one of us" — which would tend to make her a repressive drag in a typical Hollywood teen picture.
But Grace is among the film's most tortured figures. She proves that therapy-speak doesn't have to be clueless or mechanical. It can be profoundly empathetic. And it can also heal the would-be healer.
Every day, Grace rides to work on a bicycle, and the moment she enters the squat facility, she begins a series of fraught negotiations with her charges — dealings that, at times, suggest documentary realism. (It's no surprise to learn that writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton worked for two years in a short-term center.)
What is a surprise is that the only character he condescends to is the one based on himself — a glib newbie named Nate (Rami Malek). I suspect Cretton is being hard on himself. On the basis of the movie, he seems, like Grace, to have a limitless capacity for empathy.
There's so much free-floating pain in Short Term 12 that the hand-held camera's jitters seem unusually organic. We don't see the abusers — only the consequences of abuse. One of the smaller kids, Sammy (Alex Calloway), plays with dolls that an outside therapist decides to take away, leaving him barely reachable. Keith Stanfield plays Marcus, a 17-year-old who keeps his eyes down but has a keen awareness of slights. He's about to turn 18 and "graduate" into the real world — a prospect that fills him with dread.
A new arrival is Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), a punky upper-middle-class girl who's been "in and out of group homes for dangerous behavior," as Grace is warned. She's very funny, and an amazing artist, but her rage when it comes is demonic in its intensity, like something out of The Exorcist. She reads to Grace an original story about an octopus who's friends with a shark that has haunted my dreams.
So has the rap song by Marcus, a series of horrific accusations against his mother that builds to a stinging lament for "a life not knowing what a normal life's like." You don't catch Stanfield or Dever acting. They seem to be living this.
Larson gives a breakout performance in Short Term 12. I didn't recognize her from her role as the savvy ex-girlfriend in this summer's The Spectacular Now. Her transparency made me forget that she has ever done anything else onscreen. There's no residue of her other roles.
Grace has been a victim herself, and it's dismaying to watch her hold and talk her charges down, then act out at home with her boyfriend, another counselor played by John Gallagher, Jr. from The Newsroom. Gallagher's gentle, self-effacing performance is as finely wrought, in its way, as Larson's.
Cretton has a clear design in Short Term 12. Grace and Mason will have a breakthrough with a kid, and we'll think, "That's it, he or she is over the hump." Then the kid will have another outburst — a tantrum, say, or a bout of self-cutting — and the process will begin again. One step forward, one fall back. There's no "cure," only the hope that something will get through a kid's defenses.
The mood is fraught, the equilibrium fragile, the score by Joel P. West so gentle it's as if the composer doesn't want to bruise the characters — it sweetens what we see without falsifying it. Short Term 12 leaves you shaken, but not hopeless. It suggests that a certain kind of love, however short-term, can be everlasting. (Recommended)