The Foster Care Film That Helped Launch the Careers of Rami Malek and Brie Larson

Last month at the Academy Awards, Rami Malek scored the Best Actor award for his portrayal of Queen frontman Freddie Mercury. During the production, there were regular ad spots for “Captain Marvel,” a blockbuster action flick that would come out days later starring Brie Larson.

What do these two stars have in common?

Six years ago, both were featured in an indie film that brought to life the reality of a foster care group home. And they aren’t the only ones who have gone on to more notoriety since their roles in the film.

Members of the cast of “Short Term 12” at the South by Southwest Film Festival. From left to right: Lakeith Stanfield, Rami Malek, Kaitlyn Dever, Director Destin Daniel Cretton, Brie Larson, John Gallagher. Photo courtesy of SXSW.

Short Term 12” was released in 2013 with little fanfare, a small-budget picture from a then-unknown director named Destin Daniel Cretton. Through the medium of a drab concrete building, Cretton weaves two colorful narratives in the film.

The first is about the youths placed into homes like “Short Term 12,” a spare building with small bedrooms and cramped group spaces. Cretton succeeds in conveying the truth that young people in group homes might arrive for common cause, but do so with unique mixtures of assets and deficits.

The second story is about the front-line workers charged with providing a sense of security and hope for these children, whose circumstances have, to some extent, stripped them of both. The workers are all twenty-somethings who invest in the troubled lives of their young clientele while also dealing with very real challenges in their own lives.

In the film, authenticity becomes the currency of competence for the workers trying to connect with kids. Mason and Grace (played by Larson), the two veterans of the place, earn the respect of the youths at least in part because they both had personal experiences with abuse and abandonment. Nate, the new hire played by Malek, is clowned by the kids upon arrival for his insincere words and actions but gains credibility as he lets his guard down and takes an interest.

It is fairly mind-blowing, six years later, to reflect on the success of the people involved in the film. Larson won Best Actress in 2015 for her turn in “Room,” a harrowing film about a mother and son held captive for years. Malek has already taken Best Actor at the Oscars and the Emmys (in 2016, for “Mr. Robot”).

The list does not stop there.

Lakeith Stanfield’s first feature film was “Short Term 12,” in which he delivered perhaps the best performance of the movie as Marcus, a teenager set to age out of the foster care system. Stanfield is now the star of the TV hit “Atlanta,” and had a supporting role in one of the decade’s most acclaimed films, “Get Out.”

Stephanie Beatriz, who plays a teen named Jessica in the movie, has had success in voice acting on “Bob’s Burgers,” “BoJack Horseman” and “Lego Movie 2.” And the same year “Short Term 12” came out, she also joined the cast of the hilarious FOX sitcom “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” as Detective Rosa Diaz.

John Gallagher, who played Mason, was probably the most well-known member of the cast when “Short Term 12” came out. He was already starring in “The Newsroom,” an HBO series written by Aaron Sorkin. Gallagher is slated for the cast of “Modern Love,” a new Amazon series based on the New York Times column of the same name.

As for the film’s architect, Cretton, he’s doing OK, too. This month, he was tapped to direct “Shang-Chi,” the first Asian superhero flick from the box office behemoth that is Marvel Studios. And Cretton is also directing “Just Mercy,” a film that hones in on the case of Walter McMillian, a man who was sentenced to death for murder in Alabama and later exonerated with the help of attorney Bryan Stevenson.

Stevenson, who is the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), was the lead attorney in the Supreme Court case that led to the abolition of mandatory life without parole sentences for juvenile offenders.

Playing the role of Eva Ansley, Stevenson’s right hand at EJI? Brie Larson.

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John Kelly
About John Kelly 1118 Articles
John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.