Coming out of college with all the intentions to put my sociology degree to good use, I immediately went to work for a non-profit organization. While different from the foster home in Short Term 12, the principles that summate the mission and goals of my new job weren’t all too different: attempt to create a safe environment for the children I worked with and uphold a dedication to helping the underprivileged. The best and worst times of my life came from that job, where apprehension stemmed from 80+ hour work weeks and frustration from the rinse-and-repeat nature of my work. It was the people I worked with, for the most part, that kept the whole thing from unraveling. And it’s something that Destin Daniel Cretton’s Short Term 12 observes as the backbone to the tumultuous ups and downs of social work – where working with a supportive staff can be the difference between burn-out and continued commitment.
No older than 25 and in charge of a foster home for at-risk youth, Grace (Brie Larson) never leverages her authority as anything more than friend and companion. With a residence of over a dozen children ranging in age, Grace’s meager staff is limited to only three others, including a new hire seen at the start of the film. “Lose the tie” Grace tells him, evoking the cool authority that defines her personality while speaking from experience – aware of how the critical eye of the neglected will critique every gesture from a newcomer. The staff observes and interjects when needed, attempting to enliven the purgatory experience of these abandoned youth. Rituals and structures are put in place to convey a sense of normalcy, though the children at the heart of this picture are painfully aware of the atypical: doors need to be kept open at all times, regular meetings with therapists, and the significance of leaving the premises just past the white gates of the residence. The gritty social elements that comprise Short Term 12 make for an exceptionally powerful experience, highlighted by Brie Larson’s performance along with the youths that comprise the film. Most notable is Keith Stanfield as Marcus – on the cusp of turning 18 and forced out of the home, the young black male is forced to come to grips with his own abandonment along with the fears of entering an environment that treats him as little more than a criminal.
While Grace may be the authoritative figure that dominates the picture, her actions are limited by bureaucratic forces. Cretton acknowledges the flawed social structures of these types of foster homes, where therapists holding a PhD work outside the day-to-day rituals of those their treating, often times lacking the empathy needed to understand the trauma of their patients. It’s the regular staff, those who lack the socioeconomic privilege to even consider obtaining a PhD that has a clearer understanding of the children.
Short Term 12 isn’t all about the doom and gloom of foster home care. Rather it’s a considerable effort that depicts those willing to give everything for the betterment of a select few. The film’s loose ends tie up a little too conveniently as the picture reaches its conclusion and much of the grit and naturalism that comprised its notable first half gives way to an all too carefully structured second half. But the faults here are largely in the vein of optimism and when the emotional work of, well, work gets in the way, that’s what we need a little more of.