Short Term 12 can be seen on Amazon Instant Video for $0.99.
Destin Cretton’s second film, Short Term 12, which is based loosely on the director’s own experience working at a teen shelter for two years, opens and closes with the same scene: As Mason tells a group a story to his fellow workers at a shelter for at-risk youth, they know that one of their kids is out the door. Hellbent on escape, this teenager breaches the front door of the shelter, running with pure abandon for the outside world while being chased by his supervisors across the yard. It is a succinct and sad metaphor for the life of any foster child. When you are in the care of the state, you will have very little, if any, freedom until you turn 18 and age out of the system. A foster child may know this fact, but that won’t stop them from trying to break loose. They know they’ll get caught, but maybe those few fleeting moments, when you’re beyond the gates, free to choose where you might go (even if that choice is as limited as turning left or right as a means of escaping your pursuers), are worth it. Those moments can be stored away in your memory for when they are needed to bolster hope for the future.
But Short Term 12 is only the story children in foster care on its surface, as a mere byproduct of its setting. As it unfolds, we discover that it is a story of the people who work with these children and about their lives after they leave the care of the state. Day in, day out, these supervisors are faced with the challenge of raising (however much one can in a group home or shelter) these children after their parents weren’t up to the task. They are stuck with impossible situations: a therapist takes a way one child’s dolls, an act akin to stripping Linus of his blanket; a new girl wants to decorate her room with pictures of penises; one kid is a cutter, another is a runner, and all of them have been left to fend for themselves by the people who should’ve been there for them. A shelter supervisor, however, is only another person, never perfect and often naive. A supervisor may have training and experience, but, like any other human, their motives can be mixed. And their tactics have a tendency to be eye-rollingly stupid, especially seen through they eyes of someone who has never worked with foster kids.
At it’s best, in moments of suspicion and thoughtlessness, the workers at Short Term 12 teach us something about foster care that few people can understand until they’ve worked either as a shelter supervisor, a foster parent, DSS worker, or a case manager for an agency: That nothing in our experience can automatically grant us insight into the lives of individual children. Each child requires attention, observation, and time to understand them. When we reach for quick solutions and expedient conclusions, we can put ourselves, the children, and quite possibly their families in serious danger. When we act without knowledge, when we act out of our own experiences, or our own places of hurt and frustration, we blind ourselves to the needs of these kids, which are often totally different then our own needs.
Brie Larson as Grace (yes, the name is that subtle), the shelter’s most experienced supervisor, is a revelation. She projects authority, experience, and an easy manner with these teenagers that no one else wants. But alongside those strong qualities, Larson is able to present us with a character as vulnerable as any of the kids she works with, fucked up and ready to blow at just the right trigger. The double-edged sword of Grace’s character gives Short Term 12 its electricity. Her story is the story of all adult life. No matter how much responsibility you take on and no matter how well you tend to those responsibilities, there’s almost always something just beyond the veil that could cause a mature adult to fly off into a rage, a depression, a fit of irrationality, or stupidity. We can betray ourselves and our goals if someone around us does just the right (wrong) thing. And because we are adults, because we are supposed to be mature and capable, we must use everything within us to hold those destructive impulses at bay. We can’t react to triggers, we can’t allow ourselves a break from sanity, we have to wake up every morning and keep planet turning in the right direction. Until we break.
Short Term 12 is an exceptional movie, because it takes us where most of us will never go and it is generous about the lives of both the children and the adults that it portrays. As a foster parent, it was immensely gratifying to see a movie that doesn’t flinch from the difficulties or the glorious possibilities when working with teens in difficult situations. Everyone who can see it should see it. Teenagers especially should be exposed to its grim, ever-shifting reality.
But if Short Term 12 has its heart in the right place, it’s head wanders off irresponsibly.
Grace, gifted and compassionate as she is, makes some lapses in judgement that are sensible from the perspective of the dramatist, but misleading to the audience and potentially dangerous in the real world. When her newest intake, a pouty-faced girl named Jayden Kaitlyn Dever), reads Grace a story about a friend that “hurts” her, Grace believes that this young girl is being abused by her father, whom she sees on weekends. Grace goes to the head of the shelter and seeks to have the Jayden’s visits with her rather taken away. Grace’s boss wisely tells her that he cannot interfere with the visitation rights of a biological family because she heard vague story and took a dark guess as to its meaning. The girl, he says, has to say, explicitly, that her dad has abused her. Otherwise, the state can’t take action. But Grace isn’t coming to her boss merely as a concerned supervisor; she’s coming as a girl who has been abused and who has spent her own time in shelters and foster care. She’s reacting as much to her own past as she is to the intimations of this teenage girl.
Taking matters into her own hands, Grace goes to the father’s house, finds him asleep in bed and hovers over him with a baseball bat, prepared to bash his brains in. Jayden finds Grace, about to pounce, and calls her off. When they go outside, Jayden reveals bruises on her side and admits, explicitly, as Grace’s boss wanted, that her father abused her. In reaction Grace and Jayden take the aforementioned baseball bat to the father’s nice car, smashing its windows in a fury of retribution and cathartic release.
Back at the shelter, Jayden tells her story (sans the part about Grace and the baseball bat and the car), vindicating Grace’s instincts and setting everything right with the world. Dramatically, it’s clean and effective, because it reminds the audience that the scars of abuse are not magically healed just by being in foster care, aging out of the system, or gaining some modicum of adult maturity. The pain, the potential for a trigger reaction, is always there, looming and waiting for the right moment. But Grace’s actions are only validated dramatically because she happens to have been right. If she had been wrong about Jayden’s father, Grace’s actions would’ve been cause to have her fired and stripped of her license. Or even if she had been right but also found out, the same consequences would’ve come down on her. The level of sheer irresponsibility on Grace’s part is enough to make us wonder about who exactly should be working with these kids. Cretton’s insistence on vindicating his heroine has the danger of telling the audience that being right excuses bad behavior. It’s a lesson that no one should should take into their hearts, least of all a kid like Jayden.