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November 28, 2015

Short Term 12

by Franz Patrick


Short Term 12 (2013)
★★★★ / ★★★★

When you’ve worked with kids and teenagers, encountering movies like “Short Term 12,” often choosing honesty over sentimentality, rawness over Hollywood-ization, is a breath of fresh air. So few movies about troubled teenagers get it exactly right. It might be a good idea to keep writer-director Destin Cretton on our radar.

The film tells the story of Grace (Brie Larson), one of the staff members of a foster care facility, and her relationship with her co-worker/lover, Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), and the young people they supervise. Their job, along with Jessica (Stephanie Beatriz) and newcomer Nate (Rami Malek), is to provide a safe environment for the minors until the county decides what to do or where to send them next.

Right away, the picture does the unexpected. Many of us will assume that since it is Nate’s first day on the job, we will see the story through his eyes. Though we recognize and learn the inevitable mistakes he makes along the way, these are never handled with a mallet: it shows his course of action—sometimes inaction—and the camera simply moves on. It is never a lecture on what one should or should not do as a staff.

Grace lies in the heart of the film. She seems to be very good at her job. The screenplay shows us why. Though she has her share of problems, we are right there with her as she consoles another, as she puts her foot down, and as she expresses the love that she has for Mason. The romantic relationship is fresh, too. Despite not having a shadow of doubt in our minds that Mason and Grace are a great fit, there are some questions that linger in their minds. When their respective backgrounds are revealed, it all makes sense. We are what we are partly because of our pasts—whether we like it or not.

Most intense are the scenes where the kids get into a manic fit—some fueled by psychological scars constantly being split open and others by imbalance of brain chemistry at times exacerbated by drugs that are supposed to help. I had my share of working with a few troubled young people and it is not for everyone. It can be scary. It can be frustrating. But it can also be rewarding. Underneath the outer toughness and inner turmoil is someone who wants to make a meaningful connection—it is likely that they just don’t know how or they have somehow convinced themselves that they are incapable of it.

It amazes me that there are people out there who work with at-risk teens every day. They should be celebrated more. The level of responsibility and commitment is enormous and “Short Term 12” captures the essence of that. At the same time, the picture also establishes the limitations of the job. Just because you are the one on the floor with these kids day in and day out does not necessarily give you an authority to sign off on what is right for them in the long run. You feel like they are your kids especially when you get close to them but at the same time they are not nor they will ever be.

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