Stephen David Miller

Startup cofounder, AI researcher, podcaster, person, etc.

Throwback Review: Short Term 12

I hold many films close to my heart, but it rarely matters if others agree. If you don’t like Boyhood, I totally get it: I can see aspects of myself that wouldn’t like it either. If you find Wes Anderson too precious, that’s your prerogative: I have a blast indulging in his whimsy, but I have no desire to defend it. Some things, though, hit me in a deeper place. Eternal Sunshine. The Before series. Lost In Translation. If you dislike them, I certainly can respect why — in the cool, sentiment-free light of day, their flaws are evident. But it signifies a disconnect between us: a particular way of looking at the world that I treasure, which for whatever reason you don’t. It actually sort of matters.

Short Term 12 is one such film. When I saw it in theatres I was transfixed. I loved it. But somehow, my knee-jerk reaction was to write off those emotions in favor of nitpicks: it’s overly sentimental, the third act strains credulity, its conclusion is too neat. When the end of the year came and I still hadn’t gotten a chance to revisit it, I sheepishly included it in the middle of a Best Of list as an “indefensible, personal” choice — a guilty pleasure at best, hardly worth mentioning in the same breath as real, Oscar-worthy fare.

A year has gone by since I made that list, and I’ve rewatched this film embarrassingly many times: in hotel beds, on airplanes, at home with a fever, on a Vienna-bound train (yes, along with the obvious companion.) I can now safely say that Short Term 12 is my favorite film of 2013, and is on a very short list for the decade.

I love this movie in the most tender, uncool way possible. I love Larson’s lived-in authenticity. Grace is a person I’ve met many times: her struggles are real, and her quiet looks speak volumes. I love Cretton’s keen attention to detail: the game of Big Booty, Jayden’s many wristbands, the way Mason cultivates a lenient, unkempt approachability that never undercuts Grace’s authority. I love Marcus’ heartbreaking rap, and the precise amount of stunned silence we’re allotted when he finishes his refrain. I love West’s gorgeous score, where unabashedly lush melodies swell above an undercurrent of gingerly plucked strings. I love the gentle shaky cam and the empathy inherent in its gaze. I love when that gaze lingers on empty rooms: like Before Sunrise, there’s a catharsis in the morning after, of familiar settings having outlived, but not forgotten, the emotions they contained. I love that the film isn’t afraid to be as flagrantly sentimental as this review; that it asks us to laugh, mourn, and walk alongside real kids and their very adult pain, no eye-roll in sight.

Could the third act have been more restrained? Was the conclusion a bit too tidy? Maybe. I honestly can’t bring myself to care. In that maybe-too-tidy penultimate scene, as the camera zoomed and soundtrack roared, I cried very uncool tears in that theatre. And I’ve cried every time since: in hotel beds, on airplanes, at home with a fever, and yes, on that clichéd Vienna-bound train. Cretton has infinite reserves of grace for every character he brings to screen, and I’m happy to afford him the same. Short Term 12 is a lovely, heartfelt masterpiece.

See my review on Letterboxd