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  • Writer's pictureJames Rutherford

'Short Term 12': A Remarkable Cinematic Display of Human Empathy

Movie poster for the film Short Term 12 starring Brie Larson

The late Roger Ebert once asserted that a movie “is like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.”

It’s an insightful analogy, and yet one could say that virtually all movies serve as vessels for empathy (the ability to put yourself in the metaphorical shoes of another) to some degree. And yet certain movies are more conducive to an emphatic response than others—certain films really yearn to put you into the hearts and minds of its characters, allowing you to immerse yourself in their emotions, their fears and their actions. A very fine example of this is Destin Daniel Cretton’s "Short Term 12".

In "Short Term 12", Brie Larson stars as a young woman running a short-term shelter for at-risk youth in Southern California. The film depicts the world inside a residential home, with Larson playing Grace, a 20-something supervisor of both staff and residents. Grace fulfills her role readily yet warily, as she juggles her professional responsibilities with multiple struggles in her private life—including a relationship with her co-worker, Mason. And in the plights and lives of her young residents, Grace repeatedly demonstrates her dedication to providing them with the safety and caring they desperately need.

Much of the story is built around Grace’s interactions with Jayden, a recent arrival to the center who struggles with depression, avoidance and self-harm. Grace seeks to help Jayden find some semblance of stability, and in doing so finds herself drawn into her world. Despite her own personal struggles, Grace is remarkably empathetic to Jayden’s plight and to her pain. It proves to be really touching, heart-rending stuff, this depiction of such a kind, considerate individual showing so much concern and care for another human being. In fact it’s really impressive filmmaking across the board, including striking performances from an eclectic cast, including a number of young actors who have gone on to more prominent roles: Oscar-winner Larsen (Room), Rami Malek (Mr. Robot) and Lakeith Stanfield (Get Out). Each shines bright in roles of varying degrees of pain, confusion, melancholy and hopefulness.

Ultimately you’ll find that "Short Term 12" is unlike any other film you'll come across, and certainly not in such remarkably poignant form. If film is an empathy-generating machine, as Ebert suggested, I can think of few other movies that so effectively allow you to identify with and even ache for the characters and their journey. It’s a legitimate human drama that paints a very poignant picture of human compassion.


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