Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Cinema File #305: "Short Term 12" Review

For many in my close circle of film nerd friends, the little indie dramedy Short Term 12 was nothing short of a revelation, a hidden gem from 2013 that one by one seemed to claim their hearts and minds with something like cultish fervor. Hearing some of them talk about it, I half expected them to break into song about how heartwarming and perfectly crafted it was. Naturally, I had to see what all the fuss was about, if only to perform my expected duty of crapping over all of this goodwill. After watching it, I can say that the profound secrets of the universe revealed to my compatriots were sadly not imparted upon me, but that doesn't mean it wasn't a good movie, even if its not quite the great movie its cracked up to be.

With so much of modern cinema dominated by high concepts and big budgets, every once in a while its necessary to decompress with something more small scale and true to life, and Short Term 12's tragicomic look at the day to day lives of twenty somethings working at a shelter for at-risk youths is a nice antidote for anyone fatigued by a year of superheroes and hollow spectacle. The characters all feel like real people and their lives are complicated without a hint of contrivance. Its the kind of movie that does everything it can to make you forget you're watching a movie and believe that you're  right there with these kids, feeling their pain as they feel it, and for the most part it succeeds.

Short Term 12 can best be viewed as a much needed refined take on a subgenre of drama best described as the Inspirational Teacher movie. Think Stand And Deliver or Freedom Writers, where an older but in most cases still relatively young and vibrant adult gives a second and possibly last chance to a group of troubled kids no one else believes in or cares about. Just describing this kind of movie is painful considering how terrible they usually are, but that's the point. Short Term 12 is nominally that kind of story if you take out all the melodrama and artificial crap. In the universe of the film, life lessons aren't learned through speeches or pivotal moments that only happen in the movies, but rather by actually living and learning.

That being said, the movie does dance fairly close to After School Special territory a bit too often. The more realistic approach to these kid's lives is appreciated, but it would be more satisfying if their issues weren't so cliched and obvious. The problems of these problem kids run the gamut of what you'd expect, alienation, autism, sexual abuse, cutting, and so forth, and the demands of any narrative force pat resolutions that defy the otherwise organic feel of the story where the message seems to be that life goes on as it will whether we like it or not. For a group of social workers who seem consigned to their place as transitory agents with little influence over their charges, they sometimes seem a little too adept at changing lives for the better.

Overall, Short Term 12 is a sweet little movie that manages to be heartwarming without being cloying and tells a very simple straight forward story without a great deal of extraneous information or pointless pathos. It does what it does well and doesn't overstay its welcome, and while it may or may not touch something deep inside you as it has done for so many, its still an entertaining and worthwhile experience nonetheless. For anyone whose ever worked directly with children, it should be an especially rewarding venture as it captures the joys and pitfalls of impacting young lives and strives for as much honesty as possible in the process, but beyond that, it speaks to the human experience in a way that few films bother to even attempt. Not that I'm joining the cult or anything.

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