Director Destin Daniel Cretton's Short Term 12 is the archetypal Sundance indie — To Sir, With Love for Arcade Fire fans. So of course, after rejection by Sundance, the movie was met with awards and acclaim at South by Southwest. 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 be there only a little while, so she refrains from making friends. While Marcus seems more deeply troubled — counselors find a bag of pot in his bed, and he assaults someone during a Wiffle ballgame — Jayden's problems are the ones that bring out Grace's dormant anxieties.
The story's bait-and-switch, its turn into the tale of Grace and Jayden, is refreshing. American cinema isn't exactly overflowing with tales of female bonding. But the parallels between the two characters' lives soon become contrived; you can probably guess their shared secret if you've seen many American indie films the past 15 years.
Unfortunately, Short Term 12 appears to have been shot on an old camcorder using natural light. The camera, hand-held more often than not, is never very expressive, and Cretton seems afraid to go too long without a close-up. The colors are relatively dim and desaturated, unless the scene takes place in the middle of the afternoon. The movie's ugly look may be due to budgetary constraints, but Shane Carruth's Upstream Color and Dan Sallitt's The Unspeakable Act have recently demonstrated that limited funding doesn't necessarily result in muddy cinematography.
For all of Cretton's good intentions, the male characters' lives end up feeling more real because they're not pressed so hard to fit a narrative template. That sputtering noise you hear in the nobly designed, intermittently moving Short Term 12 is the sound of feminism backfiring as it meets screenplay formulas.