2013’s SHORT TERM 12 is a film student’s dream come true. It started life as a 21-minute short film in 2008 – available on Itunes for $2.99 – and became an indie feature with a cast that immediately blew up like crazy. The feature’s got Brie Larson, Rami Malek, Stephanie Beatriz, and LaKeith Stanfield (who was also in the short film) – all of whom were relative unknowns at the time.
So let’s give a shoutout to the casting department, because you should never underestimate their importance: Kerry Barden, Rich Delia, and Paul Schnee. Casting is always important, but in a film where the story is carried not by a MacGuffin or some attainable goal, it’s absolutely vital to have the best actors possible on board, since their choices will carry a lot of the weight of your film. These casting agents nailed it.
Of course, all of those choices don’t work unless they’re in the hands of a talented director, who is also the film’s writer in this case – Destin Daniel Cretton. If you recognize that name, it’s because he will be directing Marvel Studios’ new film, SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS.
Let’s recap: He graduated from film school, made a short film about a true-life experience, turned that short film into a successful indie darling of a feature starring Captain Marvel and Freddie Mercury, then scored a Marvel film. That’s it. That’s the dream. He is now the career goal for thousands of little filmmaker kids everywhere, even if they don’t know it yet.
So, if you haven’t seen SHORT TERM 12, here’s what it’s about: a group of young adults supervises a facility for troubled teens and learn about themselves. It’s based on Cretton’s experiences between college and film school of working in one such facility.
As you can see, it’s not much of a plot. This is very much a character based story, which can be super tricky. Many have tried it, and few have succeeded. SHORT TERM 12 very much succeeds.
Here is the trailer:
The story centers on Brie Larson’s character, Grace, who has never successfully dealt with the deep trauma caused by her father. Early in the story, a young girl, Jayden, comes into the facility who reminds Grace of herself, setting Grace on a mission to save this girl because she couldn’t save herself. But she gets lost. She tries to bury her pain and live a “normal” life, but never really opening up or dealing with what has kept her so closed off and angry her whole life. Then one night after a series of accumulating events that progressively stress her out and make her shut down (much to the frustration of her patient boyfriend, Mason, whose only wish is for her to let him in), Grace goes to Jayden’s house with the intent of killing Jayden’s abusive father. And that’s when her metaphorical younger self – Jayden – saves her. Together, instead of beating the man with a bat, they destroy his car. And somehow through this moment of smashing back, of allowing her emotions to run rampant, to use this car as the surrogate for the abusive father she wants to exorcise from her life, she finds a way to feel normal.
That’s the A story. The B story is all the lives of all the kids in the facility who also have really shitty parents. That forms the bookend for the film. Mason (John Gallagher, Jr), tells a story about one of the teenager at the beginning of the story, and it ends in tragedy. At the end of the film, he tells another story about Marcus (LaKeith Stanfield), who attempted suicide earlier in the film and is now doing amazing on the outside. The kids will be OK.
I think this film resonated with audiences for the same reason it resonated with me: a lot of people have issues with their parents that they’ve never resolved. A lot of us would love to smash their cars with a baseball bat. When Jayden smashed her father’s car, it reminded me of Cameron from FERRIS BEULER’S DAY OFF, when he decides he can take the heat. Sometimes that moment when you decide you’re no longer afraid – that you’re going to make sure they know what they did to you – that can be such a high.
But beyond just the story and the great performances, there is some skillful film language at play. Whereas all the handheld in last week’s MONSOON WEDDING was used to indicate a sense of reality, in SHORT TERM 12 it’s used to indicate a state of unsteadiness. At the height of Grace’s rage, as she’s about to throw her life away and murder Jayden’s father, the camera is in full-on jerk mode. The more still the characters feel, the calmer the camera.
Never underestimate the skill of a good camera operator. There were two listed for SHORT TERM 12 because there were two cameras: Paul Tram and Christopher Arata.
There is also a lovely use of inserts to create seamless transitions that would otherwise feel jarring. I love a good insert – I have a little song about them that I sing on set sometimes. It goes “Inserts! Stuff to cut to!”
That’s it. That’s the song. It’s not complicated, but neither are inserts.
Often, inserts are a great way to fix a screw-up, because in the hands of a really skilled director and editor – in this case, Nat Sanders, who also worked on Best Picture winning MOONLIGHT – a good insert can effectively set a mood for your story. Cutting from Jayden having a breakdown to an inflatable toy back to Grace finding a way to reach Jayden isn’t just a way to transition between two emotional beats – it’s also part of the story. That inflatable toy is bobbing around all alone, reminding us that these are children and they still have a lot of innocence in them left to save.
Next week, I’m going to talk about an obscure little movie I have never seen before called TWILIGHT, directed by Catherine Hardwicke. Because we’re not just about indie darlings here. Anything’s game as long as the director isn’t a cis white dude.
I would love to hear from you, so I know I’m not shouting into the wind. Feel free to comment here below with thoughts or suggestions, or Tweet at me: @TheEmilyBlake, or email TheOtherVoicesATH@gmail.com.
Emily Blake writes screenplays with lots of fight scenes. She is a vocal advocate for feminism, polyamory, kink, and sex positivity. She makes most of her money as a script supervisor for film and television, but she also makes cosplays for clients out of her little apartment in Los Angeles.