Years ago, I visited a family member – one that I cared about deeply - who was temporarily confined to an adult group home for psychological treatment; the memory of that confinement made me all-the-more curious to see the film, SHORT TERM 12, written and directed by Destin Cretton, focusing on a facility for “at-risk” youth named Short Term 12 . The plot counterpoints the communication challenges amongst the charges in this community, with the personal obstacles that arise in the relationship between the two supervising young adults - Grace (beautifully played by Brie Larson) and Mason (a sympathetic, too-good-to-be-true John Gallagher Jr.) - who have the responsibility of keeping a group of desperately troubled teens, under 18 years of age from sinking further into the abyss, which is always waiting to detach them from the pain of surviving in a slippery world. The Director ricochets back and forth from the Short Term 12 agency to the intimacy of Grace and Mason’s living quarters, and in the process revealing the couple’s private histories and tragic familial affiliations.
The movie spotlights 4 of the individuals who are restricted to the Short Term 12 Center for treatment. All the youngsters are a mixture of the innocence of breached childhood trust, resulting in severely damaged personas. The roots of their problems come from abuse and loss of the gravity that keeps us anchored to a steady, knowable world. Grace, because of personal experience can relate to those in her care, and she does so with a lovely “grace” and demeanor that belies her own unwillingness to confront the anguish she is grappling with.
SHORT TERM 12 is filled with occurrences that I doubt could ever happen in such a facility; where the caretaker and those being supervised merge beyond the traditional boundaries of treatment. But this is a movie and we the audience can “suspend belief,” if only for 96 minutes. A particularly appealing Michael Stanfield plays Marcus – a man who will be discharged because he is turning 18 and his performance is both sensitive and empathetic, though the character’s actions are alas predictable. The more complex Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever,) a new “intake” becomes the catalyst and pivotal turning point upending the lives of many of the residents as well as the staff, resulting in some crucial resolutions to difficult questions.
I was very aware of the use of cinematography as a predictor of mood change. The blinding white glare of the sun on the exterior of the Short Term 12 building contradicted the hue and cry of the lives battling to be free of their inner “specters.” The movie was also structured circuitously so that the beginning and end used similar narrative and visual devices completing a cycle of never ending repetition, or perhaps continuous beginnings.
SHORT TERM 12 could have been titled “All You Need is Love”; the belief that the love of one’s fellow man/woman harvests a solution to deep-rooted conflict. Yes there is truth to that hypothesis – seeds are strewn, but simple cathartic instances rarely cure complex conditions. Insight develops with time. This film is idealistic, with some delicate performances punctuated with hopeful moments showing that “creativity” – art, and music are central to one’s development of self-respect and worth. BUT I was frustrated by the opposite of what many critics loved about this movie – its supposed authenticity… I thought it was not authentic enough.