“Short Term 12,” A Long-Term Memory

The new indie drama Short Term 12 looks like one of those well-meaning, poignant, emotionally powerful films I would never, ever want to see. It’s about a very young white lady named Grace (Brie Larson) who works with kids and teens in foster care; she begins to heal her own inner wounds because of the unexpected connection she forges with a sullen, angry white girl in her care. Despite several unrealistic elements, the movie creates incredibly compelling characters and beautiful, potentially life-changing moments. It also sparked an intense conversation afterward. I’m so glad Victor Morton recommended this on Twitter, because otherwise I would have missed it.

Let’s start with the acting. Brie Larson (seeming startlingly like the lovely Nicole Bobek! It’s that wry, tilty little grin, and the roughed-up voice) makes you forget you’re watching a movie. She just inhabits her character. So does Keith Stanfield as Marcus, a side or subplot character whose movie I would watch, no question. The other actors aren’t quite as good–although Kaitlyn Dever as the girl Jayden has the perfect barely-adolescent mix of child and teen.

I knew I’d at least get something from this movie when the opening scenes turned into an exploration of leadership persona: the unique, theatrical/performative, and unexpected nature of the “mask of command.” Grace and her coworker/boyfriend Mason have strikingly different, complementary masks of command. She’s tough-but-tender, snapping “That’s a level drop!” and projecting total competence and protection. He leads through personal humiliation; he looks scruffy, wears goofy hats, tells super-embarrassing stories about himself, and it all adds up to someone who is totally able to earn the trust of the kids. A woman couldn’t use that persona, because she would have a much greater need to attain and project authority before she could give it up, and a man with Grace’s leadership persona might come across as dictatorial and scary. The leadership narrative doesn’t actually continue through the whole film, in part because the third coworker, a clueless overprivileged dude named Nate, doesn’t get any character development. Still, Grace’s and Mason’s leadership styles are sharply-observed and play out within their personal relationship as well.

Victor is right that the moments when the movie “breaks” to a different art form–a rap song, and a story with pictures–are wrenchingly powerful and convincing. And there are moments of immense beauty; I pretty much do not cry at movies, but I choked up more than once here, and did not feel that I was being manipulated into it.

The music is awful, seriously. It’s this plangent guitar strumming and it’s just really heavy-handed and syrupy. It was the one genuinely off note for me.

There are aspects of the plot which I could criticize, but I think–and this is hard to talk about because I don’t want to give away too much–they’re justifiable for the kind of story the movie wants to tell. To take a minor example, Grace at one point connects with Jayden by offering proof of her own troubled past. It’s presented as if this rarely happens, when in fact a) I’d expect someone in Grace’s position to have exposed this part of herself before, for precisely this purpose, and b) I wouldn’t be surprised if Jayden had heard a similar story from somebody else. “Oh, you have a lot of pain in your past, so you can relate to me? That’s something I’ve never heard from anyone at the multiple other teen centers I’ve been sent to. It’s so rare among people who choose to work with troubled adolescents. Thanks for sharing. My life is different now.” But that story, while it happens all the time, isn’t the story the movie is trying to tell, and I think that’s okay.

More troublingly, the movie is telling a story which valorizes heavy emotional investment in the kids’ outcomes, to the point of identifying oneself with the kids. I would say “overinvestment” and “overidentifying.” (This point is complicated because you really can sometimes forge a connection to a client by identifying with her and becoming complicit in her choices–but that’s a difficult, compromised and unsteady position to take, and the more willing you are to let it go and shift to a different stance if you can find one, the better.) In the real world, you can’t think of your job as fixing other people’s lives, or saving them from their personal hells. Often they won’t let you, and even if they do, you could be wrong, you could be making things worse, and you’ll probably get fired if you can’t sort through your own demons without help from vulnerable kids in your care. That’s a big part of the reason that my training for crisis pregnancy counseling emphasized the need to let go of the client and her outcomes. Any form of intense personal service requires a lot of surrender, and surrender is not what Short Term 12 is about. It’s about a much more American narrative. There’s a very thin line between what Short Term 12 wants to be–which I continue to think is a valid and good kind of story to tell–and power fantasy.

I’m glad this film is out there. It isn’t the only story, but it should be one story we tell; and it’s told well.

About Eve Tushnet