It’s very easy to be dismissive of a movie like Short Term 12. It’s an indie drama that tells a story about troubled teenagers, which is the sort of film that draws adoring critics like ants to a watermelon rind. The fact that Short Term 12 rises above melodrama at all is almost a miracle in itself, but the movie is actually worth watching on its own merit. The care and patience of the director, Destin Daniel Cretton, are on full display in how he gives his characters the space to be themselves, which is a refreshing change from many mainstream films.
Short Term 12 is a small story about people. Our protagonist is Grace, played by the charming Brie Larson, who seems to be everywhere these days. Grace is a social worker in her mid-twenties who works at a residential treatment facility called Short Term 12. Teenagers are sent to Short Term 12 for various reasons, ranging from financial struggles on the part of their parents to a high probability of self-inflicted harm on the part of themselves. As Grace points out, the social workers are not therapists and they are not parents. They are merely paid to keep the kids safe and out of trouble.
Life in the facility is introduced to us through the eyes of Nate, the new guy. In the very first scene, Nate is listening to a story told by Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), another employee and Grace’s longtime boyfriend. Right as Mason is wrapping up his story, the door to the building bursts open, an alarm sounds, and a skinny, red-headed boy wearing nothing but long underwear dashes out, ballyhooing for all he’s worth and running full-tilt towards the gate. “Welcome to Short Term 12,” Mason says to Nate, before he and Grace chase down the escaping youngster, tackle him, and walk him back to his room.
The movie is full of little moments like this one, where a completely normal day like you or I might have at our offices, instantly becomes serious, and then returns to normality just as quickly. Because of this constant yo-yo-ing of emotional intensity, the movie could easily be labeled an unrealistic melodrama and dismissed. But the truth is that in the world of live-in rehabilitation centers – a real world where teenagers grow up abused, neglected, or abandoned by their parents – emotions are about as stable as nitroglycerin. The smallest jostle could cause an explosion.
Grace spends her days putting out fires and trying to coax friendships out of the teens. She isn’t all oozy kindness, though. She’s not above chasing one somnolent boy out of bed with a super soaker. She holds the floor completely, unfazed by spitting hatred or glowering, sullen disobedience.
It’s no real surprise that Grace’s tough attitude is cinched down tight on uncertainty and fear. Like the many teens that she has under her care, she is a walking, talking Molotov cocktail, waiting to be lit and tossed on a car windshield. From the very first moment Grace is introduced, it’s clear that she is set apart from her coworkers. The first shot of the film arranges the coworkers in a tight group on one side of the screen while Grace quietly bikes in on the other. When she approaches them, the camera sits behind her head, signaling that although she is our point of view for this story, we are not welcome inside her thoughts.
Near the beginning of the movie, Grace discovers that she’s pregnant. This fact, along with the arrival at the facility of Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), a bitter, sarcastic fifteen year old who reminds Grace too much of herself, brings bits of the past into the Grace’s life that she would rather leave undisturbed. She soon realizes that she cannot move forward in her life unless she faces her past. The rest of the movie deals with the blowback from that realization and the reflections of it in her job.
As I said, Short Term 12 is a small story. It is concerned with minutiae. Many of the characters have very small objects that they have infused with some greater meaning, and the narrative spends time dwelling on these things. One of the teens has a pet goldfish, another has a collection of dolls, another a wall covered with photographs. In isolation, none of these things would hold particular significance or importance, but for these characters, these little things give them the ability to cope with the world.
This smallness describes the story as well as the characters. Grace and Mason aren’t trying to save the world. As Grace says, they aren’t even trying to save the kids at Short Term 12. They are merely trying to save themselves. The film does a good job keeping this focus. We are concerned with the daily lives of a few people, not the fate of humanity.
The relationships that people have to one another, and the pain and pleasure that can result from those relationships, remains the central theme throughout the film. Many of the shots are deliberately framed to show the proximity of one character to another. There are very few non-people-related sound effects in the film. The geography is ill-defined, and even the facility itself, though it carries a comfortable lived-in feel, looks curiously like a minimalistic set, with flimsy beds and hastily painted walls. It is nothing but the backdrop for the daily drama played out in these characters’ lives.
In spite of all this emphasis on the characters, however, we hardly ever actually see what any of them are going through. Almost all of the drama occurs in the form of stories that one character tells to another. Each of the teens has an outlet, a way in which they communicate. For Marcus (Keith Stanfield), it is his rap music. For Jayden, it’s her drawings and the story that she reads to Grace. The film opens with Mason telling a story about one of the teenagers, and ends with him telling another one about a different teen. Both stories serve not only to develop Mason’s character, but also make an important point that would have been lost had the director chose to film the scenes, rather than tell them through a character. The point is that the stories you tell yourself do matter, but equally important are the stories other people tell about you.
In the world of the movie, so much depends on people, for good or for ill. The problems that many of the teens face, and that Grace, Nate, and Mason face, are all caused by people, themselves and those around them. But the solution is also other people. At his foster parents’ 30th anniversary party, Mason gives a speech and says to the man and woman who raised him, “Everything good in my life is because of you.” People need one another, and no matter how much someone may hurt you, the solution is not to shut other people out. Other people are the only way to heal. It’s no accident that in this story, Grace is a person.
So after all those good things, why only three fish? While Short Term 12 is a solid film, its own simplicity works against it. By the end, there is no thread left untied, hardly any question about whether any of these characters will be okay. Of course they will! They have each other, right? Even the uncertainties that the characters have about their futures have an air of quaintness about them. Grace worries about whether she will be a good mother, but we in the audience are certain she will. While Cretton does take pains to round out his characters, in his world, people are divided into good guys and bad guys. By the end of the movie, we know that our favorite characters are going to be okay merely by virtue of the fact that they are the good guys.
If Cretton had not built his world so deftly and drawn his characters so realistically, I think his ending would have been more satisfying. As it is, the resolutions seem overly simplistic. Perhaps I am nitpicking now, but I would have liked to see Cretton hold even one of his protagonists responsible for their own situation. In almost every situation, the characters are merely victims of their circumstances. If they had only been luckier, they would have been wonderful people. When Marcus hits another boy with a wiffleball bat, he is punished by being sent to his room. But then Mason follows him and they break out into a rap song that shows what happened to Marcus in his childhood and why this gifted child is so messed up now. It’s a nice idea. A character who is entirely a victim, however, is difficult to take seriously, and even harder to sympathize with.
I can hardly blame the filmmakers for not tackling a larger, darker world in a 90 minute drama (the movie is what it is), but after watching the film several times, you may begin to wonder if real life is really so simple.