The subject of abused and neglected teens is always a difficult one to tackle. It either comes across as too maudlin, too preachy or too grim. Destin Daniel Cretton's Short Term 12 accomplishes the impossible with regard to this topic: Striking the perfect balance between relatable and illuminating. For anyone who has not had the misfortune of a parent wreaking extreme emotional (and, at times, physical) damage, Cretton's screenplay showcases the far-reaching after effects of abuse. Based on his own experience working at a short term foster care facility, Cretton radiates the confidence of a screenwriter who knows exactly what he's talking about.
For Grace (Brie Larson, who will surely experience a come up after this role), caring for the children at Short Term 12 is her only passion--taking up most of her waking hours. Luckily, her boyfriend, Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), also happens to work there as a counselor, so their time spent apart is minimal. From the outset, it's apparent that Grace has an aura of sadness about her, as though she just can't shake the unspeakable thing that's plaguing her psyche. When she learns she is pregnant, it is as though her melancholia becomes palpable. Her immediate reaction is to schedule an abortion appointment and return home to Mason, only to tell him nothing about what's actually going on.
To further trigger her emotional upheaval, a new girl by the name of Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) is admitted into Short Term 12. Her angst and surliness pose a challenge that Grace is up for, as she recognizes something of herself in Jayden--in fact, she soon realizes just how similar they are. In the meantime, another foster child, Nate (Rami Malek), who is about to turn 18 and be forced to live in the world again, grapples with his own issues with abandonment and hopelessness. His contentious rapport with another teenager in the home, Luis (Kevin Hernandez), prompts him to get in a fight, leading Grace to question the true motives behind his recent propensity for self-destruction.
Originally made as a twenty-two minute short film, Cretton's debut feature has clearly had time to evolve into the complete full-length film it is today. The original tagline was--more than somewhat boldly--: "A film about kids and the grown-ups who hit them." With so little room for open-ended interpretation, it is this tagline that displays just how much the movie has been able to advance into a more finely tuned work. During his two years working at a foster care home, Cretton has become knowledgable enough on the matter to not only sum up foster child life in a one hour and thirty-six minute time frame, but also to eloquently put this fine of a point on it:
“The biggest thing I learned while I was working there is that there isn’t a huge difference, at least in my experience, between . . . the people in charge and the people that are supposed to be being cared for."
As Grace gets Jayden to trust her, it becomes evident that there is something suspect about the way her father treats her. One night, after Jayden tries to return to her father's house only to find it empty, she tells Grace of her woes through the medium of a heart-wrenching children's story about a shark and an octopus named Nina. Nina, who has never had any friends before, is more than willing to let the shark eat one of her arms because he claims that's what friends d0. When the shark finally eats all of her arms--as well as her body--he comes to the realization that he misses her. The analogy of Jayden as the octopus and her father as the shark is instantly apparent to Grace, who has suffered through her own turmoil as a result of paternal problems.
With so many memories of her past being evoked, Grace can't help but take extreme courses of action as we reach the end of Act Two. Her own personal journey, spurred by the children she's supposed to be inspiring (but who ultimately end up inspiring her), is one that is both painful and joyful to watch--much like troubled adolescence itself.