‘Short Term 12’ Hits Home

If you have ever worked with kids, and you appreciate their age, you know that they teach you more than you can possibly teach them. The big up (though it rarely feels like it, for reasons I’ll get into in a bit) is that, as an adult, you get to…have to…are charged with working in a system to make decisions about the kids you look after. They can’t know your limitations, or they won’t respect your authority- the authority you need to help them and they need to feel -and actually be- safe in the world. ‘Short Term 12’ is about kids who grew up under the wrong kind of adults, and who, with a sense of purpose, turned around as adults to help kids in the same cycle of abuse and neglect, fostering and lost time. Their power is more potent because it moves across a backdrop of devastation they are familiar with. The way they manage games and crafts and free time- the things kids do- is heavy, knowing. They are aware of how these things will never feel normal for these kids who never got to be kids. Kids who, having been robbed of being young, may always be in a purgatory of growth. Adulthood is where people make mistakes with authority, and people who have experienced such horrible abuses of authority must be careful to decide how they will be when they have that kind of power, a power they perceived as great when they were being abused. On screen, this hardship is unspoken to the last third of the film. Before the protagonist, Grace (Brie Larson), speaks of her own abuse, it is a shadow, a heaviness over her actions. Her body is heavier, more defensive. She has a lot to carry inside, already, so when we learn that she’s pregnant, there is a dual cycle that forms: her horrible childhood, her life as a caretaker of children experiencing that kind of childhood, the looming threat of all those horrendous things continuing after they leave her, and the kind of mother she will be, if she so decides to be one. Her lover, Mason (John Gallagher, Jr.) is from the system, too. His role is another layer upon the cycle. He represents the good one can find in their heart, under any circumstances. As a pair, he finds her softness, and she allows him to see her as someone who can be loved. Vulnerability is not a constant for her, but his willingness to remain open brings them into balance. He is convinced that they will have the family they wished they were born into, and she wants to be there with him. The problem is that the cycle- her childhood, her child, her self- they are all affected by the weight of her history. Then she meets Jayden, a girl whose pain breaks the cycle. Her father is like Grace’s father. She hurts her body like Grace hurt her body back then. She wants to save Jayden so that she herself can feel safer. Stopping the cycle of abuse she witnessed is the only use of her power that can help save her own life, and maybe give her the ability to give birth to a new life. Before she knows she can accomplish this, everything is uncertain. She breaks off from Mason, she has plans to get an abortion- “I can’t do this, I can’t.” But when she does, a new world breaks open, her own world. The same job, the same lover, but she has life once she begins to handle the weight of her past. ‘Short Term 12’ is about reflections and growing up through those reflections we see of ourselves in others. It’s about summoning up what’s left, the other side of devastation. Destin Daniel Cretton wrote from his experience working in the kind of facility where his characters, Grace and Mason, spend their days managing, comforting, and legitimately raising children who have been all but abandoned. His script and direction expose such tenderness, focusing not on the volatile actions of the abusers, but on the healing process that comes after. By shining the light solely on the survivors, he gives viewers a unique experience to consider the situation with empathy, mixed with much less blind anger. The softness in us meets Grace and Mason, Jayden and the rest of the characters picking up the pieces and making something grow where few people thought the feat was possible.

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