With the release of The Glass Castle on August 12, director Destin Daniel Cretton is stepping into his first major Hollywood feature. Will he be ready for the pressure that comes with bigger budgets, bigger stars, studio involvement, and the inherent issues that come from attempting to adapt a vaunted best-selling memoir to the big screen? That question will only be answered in a review of The Glass Castle. What we do know is, if The Glass Castle is half the movie that Cretton’s breakthrough feature Short Term 12 is it will be worth the price of a ticket.
Short Term 12 tells the story of counselors working at a short-term home for troubled kids. Grace, played by Brie Larson, is the lead counselor at the home who feels as if she’s seen it all from the children in her care. Naturally, she’s in for a surprise with the arrival of Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) who reflects so much of Grace’s own troubled childhood back at her that it throws the normally well put together Grace into a minor tailspin.
The key to the storytelling in Short Term 12 is intimacy. Director Cretton’s style is up close and personal with tight two person shots that enhance the moments of incredible, realistic intimacy as confessions are made, moments are had, and especially when tragedy strikes. Cretton does a wonderful job of capturing extraordinary moments while also remaining aware of the bigger picture story he’s telling.
The director is aided by a standout cast led by Larson whose big, beautiful beating heart comes through in every scene. Grace may have troubles of her own, but she never loses track of her empathy. Empathy is both Grace’s greatest strength and her biggest weakness as having too much to give leaves one vulnerable, and Grace’s vulnerabilities are a big part of the story being told in Short Term 12.
It would be stretching to call Short Term 12 an ensemble film, but that doesn’t mean that those with smaller roles are in any way out-shined by Larson. La’Keith Stanfield for one carves out a delicate and troubled character as Marcus, a wannabe rapper whose drug addicted mother has led him down a path of seeming self-destruction. The pain that Stanfield conveys is remarkable given his minimal number of scenes, and Cretton brilliantly gives Stanfield stand-out moments throughout his limited screen time.
Also quite good is John Gallagher Jr. as Mason. In many movies, Mason would be too much of a saint, but in the hands of Gallagher Jr. he’s a sweet, heart on his sleeve guy who's more than willing to share his whole soul with us and hold us at a distance with his detached sense of humor. It’s a complex mix, and Gallagher Jr. finds just the right mix of humor and pathos for the role. It helps also that his chemistry with Larson is off the charts fantastic.
Short Term 12 is Destin Daniel Cretton’s breakthrough to the mainstream. Here’s hoping that the intimacy, empathy, humor, and vulnerability that marks his breakthrough goes with him as he moves to the big time with The Glass Castle. His subject there is a woman, Jeanette Walls, whose memoir is filled with a mixture of pain and pathos, humor, and heartache that should be a perfect fit for Cretton based on the wonderful work of art that is Short Term 12.