Although she has been acting since the age of 8, Brie Larson only started to become “a thing” in 2009, as the daughter of Toni Collette’s dissociative-identity housewife on the Showtime series United States of Tara. For all three seasons, the 20-something Larson stood out by playing sassy, brassy and smug.
She was so good at it, she then applied the same smart-snob approach to a slew of independent films, to the point of being tiresome. (Last year, when she wasn’t asked to do anything as 21 Jump Street’s love interest but bat her eyelashes, I felt a surge of temporary relief.)
I doubt Short Term 12 marks the end of Larson’s seen-it-all turns, but it proves she can do something other than That. She’s quite good at That, but This is something else – the performance her admirers always knew was there on the sidelines, just waiting for the proper outlet.
The buzz on her work as Grace, a foster-care facility worker who’s not entirely free of damage herself, is that it’s worthy of Academy Award consideration for Best Actress. I agree. I don’t think it will happen — the film is too tiny — but I’d love to see it happen. She’s far and away the finest element of the downbeat drama, which screens Friday through Sunday at Oklahoma City Museum of Art.
Alongside her scraggly boyfriend, Mason (John Gallagher Jr., as annoying here as he is on TV’s The Newsroom), Grace works at a group home for troubled kids. Despite her youth, or perhaps because of it, she’s able to fill the role as the one person in life who hasn’t given up on them.
As Short Term 12 progresses, however, we learn Grace is just as vulnerable as they are. The only difference is that she’s getting paid (barely) for it.
Larson is as marvelous in the part as her character’s name is on-thenose. She bares her soul and erases her vanity, letting writer/director Destin Cretton’s intimate camera take in her stringy hair, facial blemishes and all. Adapting the film from his own 2008 short film, Cretton applies an equally unkempt, no-frills touch; his camera is always moving, but at least it doesn’t shake so much as bob.
Because Short Term 12 is based on Cretton’s own life experiences, his movie is expectedly raw — often too raw for its own good — and depressing but not entirely artless and ultimately touching. Viewers will benefit from soaking in its despair, if only to realize how good they have it in comparison, but none will benefit greater than its lead. Larson’s assured, beyond-her-years performance would be a revelation if I didn’t already believe it was within her.
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• DVD Review: 21 Jump Street