Reliving Short Term 12 (2013)
At first, I only remembered crying in my car after watching Short Term 12 (2013). Between seeing a speaker at the funeral of a deceased ex as the lights came up and feeling uncomfortably fulfilled by director and writer Destin Daniel Cretton’s moving portrayal of the contemporary American young adult, I didn’t think the movie was real. But before writing this review, I watched the trailer. I then remembered the movie–and my entire movie going experience–was as real as the personal experience of Cretton’s job at a state-run facility for at-risk youth.
A fictionalized account of Cretton’s personal experience working at an at-risk youth facility and preceded by a shorter movie of the same name, Short Term 12 is low-budget feature about Grace (Brie Larson), Short Term 12’s day supervisor who must balance the delicate line between her personal and professional lives. “You’re not here to be their friend,” she tells Nate (Rami Malek), a new young and idealistic co-worker. She says it to remind herself, too, as she has traverses that delicate line with the residents. But she also lives and works with her boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher, Jr.). Cretton works with limited resources to create a chillingly masterful movie that speaks to my generation of twentysomethings, the Millenials, and understands our hormonal pangs and our resilience even in this current challenging and dark time.
A softly lit, outdated facility with neutral walls and no radiating, bright colors, it is overall an unwelcoming site, the residential facility’s most advanced technology is an older television. In contrast the administrative offices where Grace’s boss Jack (Frantz Turner) works includes a computer (Grace largely handwrites everything), shelves of books, bright artificial light and a new bright orange touch lamp. The two buildings, like the two characters and the two generations, could not be more different. Cretton clearly understands this turbulent economic moment, and his awareness makes the movie all the more real. By using one simple object, the bright orange lamp, he defines the angst and disgruntlement behind the modern twentysomething.
Short Term 12 is not a confrontational social commentary, but it is nonetheless astute. Cretton’s occasional subtle comments or observations do not deter from this anti-coming-of-age story, but show that the political and social worlds do not operate in a vacuum as in so many other movies. Cretton is awareness of this American moment. It actually may be the first movie to tap into the American public’s strong distrust of our divided government and unintentionally show the impacts of the draconian budget cuts caused by federal sequestration.
But appearances be damned! The dedicated team of Grace, Mason and the other day workers make up for their environment. Despite the clear lack of resources, the youth’s angry and violent outbursts, the bureaucratic demand for professional distance between the staff and the youth, supervisor Grace is tough. She knows the facility and the issues facing the kids, judging by the ease at which Grace, Mason and the other co-workers work with the youth. One wonders if their demeanors result from a personal calling or a professional obligation. With Grace, the question remains. Because when you watch her work with her largely absent Jack, for instance, you sense her grudge against the child welfare system, a likely microcosm of the state of the world. If Jack’s office is any indication of his budgeting priorities, then no doubt his character is the caricature of everything wrong with previous generations; he is the despised Child Protective Services social worker: reviled and cynical as well as disinterested in the youth.
As the movie unfolds, Grace’s world unravels at a surefire rate. Suddenly the lines between her personal and professional lives are blurred. At work, current resident Marcus (Keith Stanfield II) cannot accept that he will soon turn 18 and leave the facility; his inability to accept this change results in violent eruptions. As Marcus prepares for his departure, a new intake, Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) arrives. No stranger to facilities, Grace sees herself in this troubled, snarky, and wise young woman. As she navigates Marcus’s pain and learns of Jayden’s, tough and reserved Grace starts breaking under the mounting pressure and pain consuming her life.
Amidst her youthful angst is a painful hidden past. In and out of the system for years, with the cuts and fear and rage to prove it, Grace’s sexually abusive father is finally getting out on parole. As Grace navigates this peril, she also struggles to quietly navigate her relationship with Mason–and a secret she carries that could foil their relationship. Gallagher understands Mason, an affable and dorky character who is there to coddle and hold Grace. He is a spirited match to her seriousness and vulnerabilities. Though he, too, was raised in a facility, his foster family nurtured his gentility. In a memorable scene, Mason’s adopted family celebrates with him. He cries as Grace looks on. Contrasted with Grace, whose family is largely absent, he is able to stick with his complicated girlfriend through anything. While their similarities keep them together as much their differences define the reality of relationships. Larson shines throughout the movie, grasping the complexity of being a Grace in the contemporary world, the third wave feminist with the struggle of a first.
Short Term 12 is a bellwether and a game-changer. For one, Millenials now have a movie that explains, as movies should, our current precarious moment. By honestly confronting our generation’s disillusionment with the current system–an unstable, out of date economic, political and social model–it is thus one of the greatest American movies ever made about twentysomethings. And unlike the nonetheless great Japanese movie Battle Royale (2001), another commentary on youth and rebellion, it did not have to create a dystopian future. Nor did it portray the lily-white suburban fantasy of John Hughes’s Sixteen Candles (1984) or The Breakfast Club (1985). Short Term 12 says, no, we’re not cynical, it says, we are angry. (It’s a nice change of pace from the angry Igby Goes Down an the narcissistic Lost in Translation, both of which join the ranks of hopeless youth genre.) Just as we navigate emotions every day, Short Term 12 provokes a true range of emotions.
But as we’ve been thrown the short stick, decried as lazy, selfish and lack the morality and ethics of our predecessors, I fear not everyone could see it, nor will they see it, and the movie’s quiet influence will not be felt. After leaving the movie, I remember crying about that, too.