In the banter-heavy cold open of 2012’s Short Term 12, Brie Larson’s Grace puts a disclaimer on the humorous anecdote her boyfriend and co-worker is about to engage in so newcomer Nate (Rami Malek) can keep his expectations in check. As Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) presumably embellishes a tall tale about tacos destroying his bowels at a bus stop, first time viewers might not realize they’re watching a drama about a troubled youth facility. But before he can finish the story, a young boy named Sammy runs screaming from the titular youth center toward the street. Grace and her colleagues chase after him as their moment of levity screeches to a halt, and as they remember the instabilities that define their line of work, so do we.
The tonal whiplash of these first five minutes is indicative of Short Term 12’s thematic draw: the stories, jokes and other facades people put up to hide from their dark realities. At the Short Term 12 group home, teenagers who have faced varying degrees of abuse and personal tragedy are encouraged to partake in supervised activities for distraction, but often find themselves in their own rooms facing—or perhaps avoiding—their personal demons. Sammy clings to dolls that once belonged to his late sister. Marcus (Lakeith Stanfield), the oldest resident who’s set to return home soon, keeps a pet fish that can keep him company without pressuring him to open up about his troubles. Though usually soft-spoken, he raises his voice when Nate expresses excitement at working with “underprivileged kids,” as if any joy can come from that disclaimer. Sugar-coated presumptions are everywhere in this film, but few last long.
The majority of main characters in Short Term 12 are postponing emotional outbursts for as long as they possibly can. In Marcus’ case, his brief run-in with Nate is the first grain of salt we see rubbed in a longstanding wound. During a baseball game, Marcus strikes out and fellow resident Luis taunts, “Bet your mom’s real excited to see you next week.” This sets Marcus off, and even after he’s sent to his room after attacking Luis, he refuses to explain the cause of his anxiety to Grace. She sends Mason in to try the nicer approach, and Marcus tells his own story to match Mason’s from earlier. Through unapologetically profane rap lyrics he wrote, Marcus finally reveals the abuse he receives from his mother, ending with, “Look into my eyes so you know what it’s like to live a life not knowing what a normal life’s like.” He might as well be addressing his mother, Mason, and viewers in equal measure.
Marcus is not entirely correct in assuming Mason is inexperienced with familial insecurity, however. It’s later revealed that Mason was raised by a foster family who took him in when he was a “punk kid” and showed him “what it was like to be loved.” But as Marcus underestimates the struggles Mason has gone through, Mason never fully grasps the psychological effects Grace’s abusive father had on her. As played with movie star warmth and wit by Brie Larson, Grace seems like a leader who has everything under control when working with the kids at Short Term 12. But director and screenwriter Destin Daniel Cretton sprinkles in recurring hints at her unhappiness in solitude throughout, like her silently sitting in the shower to postpone intimacy with her well-meaning boyfriend Mason. Like Nate before him, Mason is unintentionally presumptuous of Grace’s experience when he tells her early in the film, “You’re gonna have to let me in your head once in awhile.”
Perhaps Grace would have been able to indefinitely internalize her history of sexual assault if not for the arrival of Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever). Like Grace, Jayden puts up a sarcastic act to hide her emotions, while also wearing multiple bracelets to hide her physical, self-inflicted scars. She shares Grace’s experience with an abusive father and self-harm, as both find out after Jayden has a violent outburst upon hearing her father will pick her up soon. Inevitably, both young women have found themselves in situations where they cannot pretend to be well-adjusted, and their openness to each other yields a unique connection neither of their peers can fully comprehend. This is the most moving aspect of Short Term 12—its portrayal of both the pain and necessity of opening up to others, of finding someone who can empathize with one’s personal struggle.
This celebration of emotional honesty is reflected by a third act that could easily be confused for contrivance or schmaltz. After just over an hour of tightly balancing between heavy scenes and lightly comedic ones, Cretton dives head first into the personal agony both Grace and Jayden have been unable to articulate for too long. Grace discovers her father will be let out of prison right before Jayden’s father picks her up from the group home. Both have hit their lowest point, and Grace separates herself even further from Mason by calling off their marriage and announcing her plans for an abortion of their child. As it took a violent outburst from Jayden for the two to connect, it takes some more physical exertion for them to work through the new challenges that face them. When Grace sneaks over to Jayden’s house, they beat up Jayden’s father’s car with baseball bats, and little dialogue is necessary to convey the shared catharsis of the moment. Both needed to act irrationally, with the possibility of rejection or consequence, to be fully honest about their emotional scars and evolve past them. This is necessary for Jayden to finally report her father’s abuse and Grace to fully commit to her fiancé and child.
Cretton should be commended for documenting the necessity of letting everything out, of opening up to others who may or may not fully understand your pain. Not all the film’s characters have connections as closely aligned as Grace’s and Jayden’s, but small attempts of kindness are equally celebrated. Marcus helps the younger residents make birthday cards for Jayden while the advisers deal with her outburst. Nate returns Sammy’s doll to him after his therapist took it away. These gestures are essential to any troubled person’s emotional well being, and Cretton’s blunt portrayal of the residents’ hardships make the random acts of kindness seem downright heroic, as they should.
The film ends the same way it started—with Mason telling a story. But this time, the subject matter reflects the many characters’ journeys toward opening up about themselves. Rather than laughing about a crude personal experience, Mason sincerely beams about Marcus’ newfound happiness outside the group home. Self-depreciation turns into celebration, as it should for everyone.
Short Term 12 is an almost entirely apolitical movie that still remains essential viewing for troubled times. As a lesson in opening oneself up to another, it resonates on a near spiritual level.
Featured Image: Cinedigm