Repairing the human heart in an institute for troubled teenagers, Destin Daniel Cretton’s Short Term 12 provides compelling food for the soul.
The Kids Are All Right by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
It opens and begins with a story. Outside the youth facility on a bench, just four members of staff by themselves. Twice they’re interrupted by Sammy, running out of the door of the institute in a desperate bid for escape. But like Mason’s stories, by the second time something’s different. While Mason’s opening story begins with a comic tale of him chasing after an escapee and soiling himself after an out-of-town bus ride, it ends with that same kid found two days later dead under a bridge. His final story though is about isolated and troubled Marcus who, having left the safety of the institution at 18, Mason discovers has turned his life around – in a coffee shop with a job, a girl and a cappuccino. A cloud has lifted, and there’s even something playful about Sammy’s final-reel sortie – brandishing Old Glory like a cape and after a week of bedridden depression doubling back towards them, his aim no longer to escape but to be chased. And as Destin Daniel Cretton’s Short Term 12 draws its curtain and turns to slow-mo, it’s a handsome testimony to the love and good care with which the struggling adults care for their kids.
Grace (Brie Larson) works as a carer at an institute for troubled youth, keeping the teenagers and their baggage under control with emotional indicators and behaviour levels. It’s Nate’s (Rami Malek) first day, full of clumsy good intentions, gradually learning to strike the right balance between friendliness and discipline, freedom and control. Grace lives secretly with co-worker Mason (John Gallagher Jnr), but when she finds out she’s pregnant, it sends her into a tail-spin – scarred by her own childhood and afraid of bringing a child into the world. It’s made worse by the prospect of her old man getting out of jail, and also by new arrival Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), with whom she forms a strong bond, but who takes her back to her own troubled days of youth. Veering between having an abortion and breaking up with Mason, Grace is in emotional turmoil caught between her past, present and future.
It’s perhaps only natural that it’s those men and women that have been bruised in the past who become carers for children like their younger selves. And Short Term 12 with its understanding and unstinting adult carers, is a safe haven of boundless forgiveness and love -carefully negotiated through a system of colour levels and declared emotions. And while the kids have plenty going on – Marcus anxious about leaving, Sammy disconsolate about his dolls being taken away and new intake Jayden finally opening up about her father’s abuse, it’s a big week for Grace and Mason too – pregnant and engaged to be married. And yet it’s all thrown into jeopardy with the imminent release from prison of Grace’s father and her fiercely protective connection with Jayden.
As Grace gets to know Jayden, probing beneath her tough survivor’s exterior, things start to unravel. And slowly it’s revealed Grace is just as damaged as the children she looks after, refusing to let anyone in or even trust her fiancé Mason. Grace is on the point of giving it all up – motherhood and marriage and all prospect of a normal future – as her suppressed past comes bubbling to the surface. And just as Jayden opens up to the community as much as they open up to her with a collection of hastily put-together birthday cards after her father fails to show up for a weekend pick-up, Short Term 12 is a testament not only to the hard work and love of all those that make a difference but also to the emotional importance of community and its effect on the human spirit, sometimes able to overcome its trauma and pain.
With a great performance from Brie Larson and a whip-cracking script, Short Term 12 is a genuinely moving look at troubled teenagers and the love that puts them back on track. It’s simple without much philosophy beyond the heartbreakingly human inability to be everywhere for everyone all of the time. But veering away from melodrama and tragedy, Destin Daniel Cretton’s Short Term 12 works a tender charm with a lot of soul.
Short Term 12 is released on 1st November 2013 in the UK