Short Term 12, written and directed by Destin Cretton, is a somber, naturalistic glimpse into the troubled lives of teens in a foster care way station, and the young, wry, sarcastic staff who care for them. It is a world that has given up hope of others understanding it as exposition comes mainly through the orientation of new employee-cum-surrogate audience Nate (Rami Malek) – naïve with good intentions, but not ready for this environment.
At first, it may seem like we are in a bizarre Charlie Brown universe where the “adults” are mumbling forces off-screen, but it becomes clear that this is a slice of these kids’ lives as they are being watched by the 20-somethings, specifically the figure head among them, Grace (Brie Larson).
Grace, despite her chronic melancholia, seems to be a success story – having survived the foster system she is now a productive member of society. Despite this, she still has issues from her tumultuous childhood she has not yet dealt with, and the perpetrator of her pain, her dad, is to be paroled in a few months. Meanwhile, she finds out that she is pregnant and immediately decides to terminate it. However, as she sees hope’s subtle presence emerge in one particular foster teen she reconsiders the abortion, and starts to imagine a family with her co-worker/boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher Jr).
On the one hand, it felt a little unbelievable that these young men and women who clearly haven’t been professionally trained are in charge of chasing after the kids, calming them down in the midst of breakdowns, and disciplining them if, say, they beat another kid senseless with a bat. On the other hand, having too much of the bureaucratic side of their lives showcasing the failure of the system, etc. would have muddled Short Term 12’s intended focus.
Here is a story of people with troubled pasts stewarding kids in the thick of similar troubles. Moments of pain are felt once they surface from the steeled brim of anger each child has had to create for their own survival. Moments of sweetness come after the pain has sunk in. These staff members perform the same duties of a nanny or camp counselor; they wake them, feed them, and are active with them. They create an alternative family environment in between school, therapy, caseworker visits. There is an understanding that no one can be saved or avenged; that babysitting them will and must suffice.
Grace thinks she has adapted better than anyone to this situation, but she still finds a need to prevent these kids from reliving her own past. Her intentions send her down some pretty dark trajectories to the point that she realizes (somewhat humorously) that some choices are a little too dramatic even for her. They do, however, make sense. Grace and her crew are the only people with any empathy for these foster children, but have very limited influence on their futures. The unseen forces that govern these kids’ lives are mostly at odds with what common sense would suggest, creating an atmosphere full of stymied objectives and dwindling hope.
Cinematically, I must say that this is the first art film shot digitally (Red epic) that really turned the tide for me visually. I don’t think I am a snob, but I do think these types of films are cheapened if they are not shot on film. When I spot that video aesthetic, the whole movie loses its grip on me. Short Term 12, however, looked filmic the whole way through, which gives me a lot of hope for low budget movies.
Short Term 12 isn’t for everyone. It’s not a welcoming world, but once you are there it is difficult not to connect with these people. They’ve survived traumatic often lurid events, and are trying to make the best of things while they wait for their lives to be their own.