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Short Term 12

August 31, 2013
Short Term 12

What is it like, to live a life not knowing what a normal life’s like? The kids living on Short Term 12 know all too well. Sure, we all have our little traumas, but most of us have never ended up in a residential foster facility like this. It’s intended for short-term stays while the rest of the system figures out what to do with the kid, but with some visits dragging on for years, until they finally age out. These kids are abused, neglected, and have been involved in all sorts of risky behaviors, acting out against what they’ve had to endure. Some kids’ stories we hear a lot about; some we get only in fragments. They’re all quietly, powerfully heartbreaking, and the thought that these are just the tip of the iceberg, even in just this one facility, is overwhelming.

Marcus (Keith Stanfield) has been here a while, and is about to turn 18. Abused and neglected by his mother, he deals with some serious anger issues, though he manages to find an outlet in the rap lyrics he writes. But as his birthday approaches he worries about what’s going to happen once he’s out on his own, and he starts to act out.

Jeyden (Kaitlyn Dever) is a newcomer, the daughter of a friend of a friend of Jack (Frantz Turner), the head of the therapeutic staff. She’s been acting out since her mother died, alternately getting into trouble and harming herself. She stays distant from the other kids; her father will take her on weekends and she’ll be living with him full-time soon enough anyway, so why waste time on short-term relationships? But it doesn’t take a trained therapist to know something doesn’t smell right here.

Who can possibly endure a front-row seat to these lives, charged with providing a safe place but with little power to effect meaningful change? Police who investigate crimes against children have a notoriously high burnout rate, and they don’t have to live with the kids, watching the aftershocks play out for days, or months, or years. How can you stand by and watch without going numb, growing hardened to the pain you see every day the way it seems Jack has?

The new staffer, Nate (Rami Malek) doesn’t seem to know what he’s gotten himself into, taking a year off from college. He’s the sort of blessedly silly idealist who doesn’t even know enough not to call the kids “underprivileged” to their faces. He seems to grow into it a bit by the end, but something in me doubts he’ll stay beyond the year.

It might take being forged in the same crucible, like Grace (Brie Larson) and Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) were. Mason grew up in the foster care system himself, luckily finding himself in a loving home that turned him around. Grace has her own troubled past, and though she can turn some of those hard-learned lessons to the good of the kids she has severe misgivings about her ability to carry on life in a real family.

The worst part of it all is the idea that maybe Jack has it right. Maybe the regulations, as stupid and awful as they seem in an individual case, really are for the overall good. Maybe you do have to harden yourself to get anything done at all. Mason is sort of an overgrown kid himself, and he can provide a good example like a big brother, but he’s better at coping than fixing. Grace is more proactive, and it drives her over the edge. Even when she’s vindicated, she’s incredibly unfair to her charge; she only does less harm than good because of the sheer magnitude of the danger she averts.

I know it sounds like an ordeal to sit through a film like this, but it’s not without its rewards. Writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton — expanding his earlier short film — presents these stories simply and powerfully, with an honesty that shines through. Larson is amazing, but she’s just the lead of a phenomenal young cast. This is a serious contender for one of the best films of the year.

The fault, if there is one, is that Cretton seems to want to leave us with the idea that everything will work out all right in the end. Maybe we need that dash of sugar at the end to help the rest go down. Maybe if Short Term 12 came off as cruel and arbitrary as real life can be it would be that much easier to shut our eyes and turn away, pretending to ourselves that this doesn’t really happen.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.

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