Director Destin Daniel Cretton's Short Term 12 is the archetypal Sundance indie — To Sir, With Love for Arcade Fire fans. So of course Sundance rejected it, leaving SXSW to greet it with awards and acclaim. It's the kind of film that feels genuine in the details — as in a profane, powerful rap song performed by a kid named Marcus (Keith Stanfield) — yet phony in its characterizations and in the narrative's broad outline.
Set at a live-in center for at-risk youth, Short Term 12 starts as the story of a new male counselor before shifting focus to Grace (Brie Larson), who works there with her boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher Jr.). Initially she seems to be on an even keel, but the arrival of teenage Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) throws her off balance. Jayden insists that she'll only be there a little while, so she refrains from making friends. If Marcus seems more deeply troubled — counselors find a bag of pot in his bed, and he assaults someone during a whiffleball game — Jayden's problems are the ones that bring out Grace's dormant anxieties.
It's actually refreshing that Short Term 12 pulls a bait and switch and turns into the tale of Grace and Jayden: American cinema isn't exactly overflowing with tales of female bonding. But the parallels between the two characters' lives soon become contrived, down to their shared history of cutting. (The two actors even look similar.) It's strongly hinted that both have a secret in their past that you can probably guess if you've seen many American indie films from the past 15 years.
Regrettably, the movie also looks ugly. While some of that may be due to budgetary constrictions, Shane Carruth's Upstream Color and Dan Sallitt's The Unspeakable Act have shown that very limited budgets don't have to result in muddy cinematography. Short Term 12, on the other hand, appears to have been shot on a very cheap camcorder, with natural light. The camera is handheld more often than not, and while it doesn't overdo shakycam, it's never very expressive. Cretton seems afraid to go too long without a close-up. The colors are relatively dim and desaturated unless the scene was shot in the middle of the afternoon.
For all Cretton's good intent towards women — the film passes the Bechdel test with flying colors — the male characters' lives feel more real because they're not pressed so hard to fit a preexisting narrative. That sputtering noise you hear in the nobly intentioned, intermittently moving Short Term 12 is the sound of feminism backfiring as it meets screenplay formulas.