At the Movies – Short Term 12

by Meg Sklut ’18

A majority of films, good or bad, use music as a vehicle for the audience to understand meaning. While this is a fine tactic, sometimes the music takes away from the importance of the writing and of the acting. It can also underestimate audiences’ abilities to interpret a movie’s message on their own. Short Term 12, however, relies on little more than the performances of the actors and on the realism of the dialogue to tell a story. The beauty of the movie’s music lies in its simplicity and unobtrusive nature.

Short Term 12 is a story of a young woman, played by Brie Larson, who works at a group home for troubled kids. As the film slowly reveals her own problems, the audience comes to comprehend the importance of aid and understanding. The movie features a multitude of supporting characters who authentically portray the lives of disadvantaged children learning how to grow and evolve.

The film is written and directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, a relatively young and new director, and the music was directed and composed by Joel P West, a songwriter based in San Diego. Using mostly string instruments and piano, West creates a soft, unobtrusive soundtrack. Of the music’s progression, West explained in a video that “everything you hear in the first half of the movie is all just little, two note chords. As the movie progresses, Grace [Larson] is kind of believing in herself more… we add more and more strings until the end…you kind of get this full realization of the music you’ve been hearing this whole time.” The music in Short Term 12 is not random; it mirrors both the movie’s progression and the characters’ journeys.

Another unique aspect of Short Term 12‘s score is that many scenes don’t feature any music at all. Lack of music in films can be used in very powerful ways, especially when the director wants the audience to pay special attention to the actors. As a result, the audience becomes hyper-aware of how the actors are expressing emotions, a concept critical to Short Term 12. The lack of sound coincides with the fact that most of the camera shots are close ups. These aspects create an overall atmosphere of emotion and realism, since there is no music or large, widescreen camera shots in the real world.

The film tackles issues revolving around family life, many of which are represented in songs such as “Let Me In.” The song especially demonstrates the climax of the movie. Using strings and piano, “Let Me In” has a much faster momentum and uses lower notes than the rest of the songs on the soundtrack, resulting in a darker, more intense mood. While not entirely unobtrusive, “Let Me In” is too short to completely manipulate the audience into feeling one, singular emotion. All of West’s songs within Short Term 12 leave the audience in control of how they feel and react.

Another essential aspect to Short Term 12‘s success as a film is the depth of the characters. For example, Cretton collaborated with the actor and rapper who played Marcus, Keith Stanfield, on the rap “You Know What It’s Like” to delve inside of the character’s mind. Throughout the movie, Cretton represents characters respectfully and disregards any stereotypes an audience may have about a particular person in the film.

Short Term 12 is one of my personal favorite movies and I highly recommend that everyone to go home and watch it. While uplifting and sweet, the film deals with issues in a direct way. The music is crafted so that viewers can find their own personal connection to the film without being explicitly influenced by external stimuli, like excessive sounds, costumes, or makeup. Short Term 12 is a powerful film that highlights human relationships and the importance of a supportive community.

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