In the British equivalent of SHORT TERM 12, a drama about vulnerable teenagers in protective custody, the system would completely fail. Child abuse would go undetected until too late. Overworked social workers would be scapegoated and the Director of Care Services would be given a six-figure settlement for unfair dismissal. But SHORT TERM 12 is an American movie. It breeds optimism, which is, after all, what we want from the movies. It’s also what we want from a care system, to provide respect and a sense of empowerment for the children under its protection.
The title of writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton’s film refers to a facility staffed by young people who want to give something back for the unconditional love afforded to them at points of desperate loneliness. The chief carer is Grace (Brie Larson). Her father abused her as a child. She testified against him. He’s in jail. But he’s getting out, and Grace discovers that she’s pregnant. Her colleague-slash-lover Mason (John Gallagher, Jr), cared for as a young boy by Mexican-born foster parents, only knows about the former (Grace’s dad making parole) but not about the latter. Meanwhile, it’s business as usual. A young kid makes a run for it. Once he leaves the gates, then that’s it, they can’t touch him. But they get him back. Another teenage boy, about to turn 18, has his own issues, fear of the outside world and the lure of crime. What he wants for his birthday is to shave his head. He doesn’t take kindly to being classed as ‘an underprivileged kid’. Meanwhile, there’s a new girl, Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) who has father issues. Grace identifies with her. When Jayden is revealed to self harm, Grace reveals her scars, just above the ankle. When Jayden is released into the care of her father, Grace freaks out, breaking every rule about impartial care, as well as her boss’ lamp.
SHORT TERM 12 begins with an extended anecdote about Mason, a runaway kid, and some bowel-quivering tacos. I won’t repeat it here, but it illustrates how carers cannot worry too much about their dignity. Kids who curse are subject to ‘a level drop’. If they’re well behaved they get TV. They are encouraged to update the group, though everyone can see each other’s business so one wonders how surprising those updates are. The film only really focuses on three kids for the sake of dramatic clarity, to correspond with three carers, Grace, Mason and a new guy named Nate.
Cretton makes clear that the carers can’t solve the kids’ problems for them; they can only be enablers. They have though rather limited tools – paper, pens and words (but, please, no pictures of penises). There is also heart. When one child has a bad time, another instigates a greetings card production line. It is a moment that takes your breath away – compassion in its rawest form.
SHORT TERM 12 does deal with child abuse and violent weakness but also emphasises human goodness. A feel-good movie in the best sense, it has a ‘capture the flag’ final scene, as well as strong naturalistic performances from its leads. The question is: do I believe it? I felt the answer was yes – these are credible kids doing good.
Reviewed at Cineworld West India Quay, East London, Sunday 3 November, 13:30 screening