I used to work in a facility similar to the one in Short Term 12. A group of people with special needs lived there and the staff tried to help them prepare to move into new settings where they would live with substantially less support and supervision. Our challenge was to help them get ready for the trials of independent living while maintaining a safe, nurturing environment. The problem was that while most of the residents were eager to move on, some of the individuals grew to like our little Nerf World so much they were hesitant to leave.
Short Term 12 takes place in a facility that serves special needs people younger than 18. One of the kids we meet appears to be autistic, but most of the residents suffer from emotional issues, with many having endured neglect or more overt abuse. Writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton used his experiences working in a similar place to build his story, which chronicles the lives of a few direct care staff members and residents.
Cretton's background in the field helps the film achieve a strong sense of authenticity. I believed the characters and found the interactions between the young staff and their clients credible. The drama is balanced out with humorous bits that fit naturally into the flow of the movie. Cretton spent years preparing the sweet, engaging feature. A short film version of the tale was celebrated on the festival circuit several years ago.
Cretton's efforts, along with the performances of a talented cast, help the film transcend its Afterschool Special set-up. For the most part, that is. The film gets soapy in spots, which I didn't mind. Yes, I rolled my eyes when the film's "here we go again!" final moment. And I bemoaned the excessive tidiness of a screenplay that gives one staff member the same self-injurious behavior and abuse history as the young girl she is attempting to help.
But those are just annoyances in a production that is very good overall. Brie Larson (The Spectacular Now) and John Gallagher (The Newsroom) center the story as staff person's hiding their romantic relationship. The affable Gallagher reminds me of The Office veteran John Krasinski, while Larson appears on the verge of breaking through to the big time.
Rami Malek is amusing and relatable as a new hire that initially alienates the kids by calling them "underprivileged." Keith Stanfield impresses as a resident about to turn 18, which means he will have to leave the facility and enter the non-Nerf city. And Kaitlyn Dever steals scenes as a sullen kid with a troubled past that threatens her future.
In 1979 I sought a job at a special education school after being moved by a TV movie about a mentally-challenged couple. At that school I met an amazing kid named Donald. We adopted each other a few months later and have been father and son ever since. I can imagine Short Term 12 inspiring people to enter the field. It's gratifying to see a well-crafted, entertaining movie that might also serve as an agent of change.