Introducing the international premiere of his second feature Short Term 12 at Locarno Film Festival, Destin Cretton remarked that he grew up in Hawaii, in a town whose population wasn’t dissimilar to the number of people he was currently addressing. 95 minutes later, he and his leading actress Brie Larson were greeted with a standing ovation that went on long after the end credits had finished. It was the kind of sweeping moment that causes the hairs on one’s nape to stand on end. At a time when coldness reigns and misery is the fashion, here is a film that dares to be nice.
Based in part on Cretton’s time as an employee at a foster care facility, Short Term 12 follows Grace (Larson) and Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) and the small group of teens in their charge. There are two newcomers at the camp – one employee, Nate (Rami Malek) and one patient, Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), whose room door must remain open at all times because of her noted history of self-harm (“she’s a cutter,” Mason explains to Nate). While Nate learns the ropes of his new job, Jayden’s instinct is to test the trust and patience of those authority figures around her. Sensing a background similar to her own, Grace takes it upon herself to spend time with Jayden, drawing with her and joining her to take anger out on an inanimate blow-up dog.
As it transpires, Grace has her own problems. Just as she begins to suspect Jayden has been and continues to be abused by her dad, she learns that her own father is due to be released from prison following a stint there after being convicted of abusing his daughter. Pregnant and newly engaged to Mason, Grace’s mounting responsibilities threaten to overwhelm her – contrary to the advice she gives others, she is unable to voice her problems with those closest to her. With great sensitivity and conviction, the film argues for the benefits of speaking out and of bearing witness for those who do so. Beneath the all-smiles veneer of these characters, a trauma lingers: when black teenager Marcus (Keith Stanfield) tests his rapping skills on Mason, it isn’t long before the anger and hurt come seeping through.
One’s love for this film might be reluctant. Working within a familiar framework and with an identifiable indie sensibility, Short Term 12 courts that fine line between sincerity and schmaltz, something that is emphasised by the suspicion that Cretton felt overly obliged to follow up every tender moment with a sobering bout of bad news. Similarly, whenever a more emotionally challenging scene escalates, one anticipates musical accompaniment.
With its focus on togetherness and strength in numbers, though, Short Term 12 has a fine sense of emotional timing. When Jayden returns to her room after cooling off from an outbreak of wounded aggression to find a batch of birthday cards made by the other kids waiting for her, for instance, the gut churns and the heart swells. Extensions of generosity such as this are never not moving, and are all too rare in contemporary drama. The all-round excellent acting, furthermore, lends a delicacy and plausibility to what could easily have been eye-rollingly embarrassing scenarios.
Another strength of the film is its acknowledgement of the legal and bureaucratic framework by which victims of domestic abuse fine themselves doubly alienated. When Grace approaches her supervisor to take measures against Jayden’s father, for instance, she is rejected on the grounds that a mere implication from the child is not enough. As a result, the scene in which Grace – whose own pressures are taking their toll – joins Jayden in taking a baseball bat to the latter’s dad’s car, provides both characters a bittersweet catharsis. Relieving on the one hand, it also suggests that such retribution can only be found beyond the parameters of the law.
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