In the new indie drama “Short Term 12,” one of the first pieces of advice given to new short term foster care workers is simple: “We are not their parents.”
That point is driven home time and time again, as the SXSW Film Festival award-winning film seems determined to differentiate between being a parent and being a caretaker.
Brie Larson, so great as rebellious Kate Gregson on Showtime’s now-defunct “United States of Tara,” shines as Grace, the twenty-something supervisor at the foster care facility.
For someone so young, Grace is clearly so comfortable in this world, not hesitating to playfully turn a squirtgun on a defiant teen determined to sleep in or to take away privileges from any of the kids who break the facility’s rules.
In her personal life, she seems much less in control, as if her life and her relationship with her boyfriend (a charming John Gallagher Jr.) are part of a carefully built house of cards.
While “Short Term 12” is very much Grace’s story, the film manages to get inside the heads of the teenage foster care residents, who have lost parents to drugs and alcohol, abuse and loss.
There’s Marcus (Keith Stanfield), who is on the cusp of 18 and fears leaving the facility, and Sammy (Alex Calloway), a boy in a near-catatonic state whose only happiness comes from his sister’s toys, which allow him to escape into his imagination.
16-year-old Kaitlyn Dever (“Justified”) is one to watch, giving a powerhouse performance as the emotionally frustrated Jayden, whose past appears frighteningly similar to Grace’s.
Despite its heavy subject matter, “Short Term 12” is surprisingly funny, and it’s the film’s ability to masterfully shift its tone from comedy to drama that allows its heartbreaking storytelling to breathe.
If anything, the capable actors playing support staff at the facility were somewhat underutilized, namely the wry Jessica (Stephanie Beatriz, “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”) and wide-eyed newbie Nate (Rami Malek).
But as “Short Term 12” expresses so well, there’s nothing wrong with wanting more.