SHORT TERM 12 A-
USA (96 mi) 2013 d: Destin Cretton Official site
You are not their friend, and you are not their therapist. You’re here to create a safe environment, and that’s it. —Jack (Frantz Turner)
The gut wrenching, emotional powerhouse blockbuster of the year, this film is an offshoot of a 22-minute short by the same name that won the Jury Prize in Short Filmmaking at Sundance in 2009, and later won an Academy Nicholl Fellowship Award for screenwriting in 2010, eventually expanded into a full-length feature film. Rejected by Sundance earlier this year, the film was chosen to premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, winning both the Audience and Grand Jury awards. Of particular interest, Keith Stanfield as Marcus, who also performs some of the musical soundtrack, appears in both the short and the feature, while the initial focus in the short was on a male supervisor at a residential foster care facility for “at risk” youth, the feature length film switches this to a female role. The writer/director worked for several years in a similar facility after earning a degree in communications from Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, lending extraordinary insight and authenticity to what’s portrayed onscreen. From the opening moments of the film, largely understated, using an economy of means, the audience is totally immersed into a completely unfamiliar world, as these are mostly kids society has discarded, living in a cinder block, dormitory style compound where for their own safety they’re not allowed to close their doors, where there’s no place else for them to live as they’ve been too deeply damaged. Repeatedly beaten or sexually abused by their own families, the deep seeded anger and bitterness is so pervasive that these kids continually retreat from the world, tarnished and wounded souls, becoming cutters or suicide risks, and have an especially hard time expressing themselves, often at a loss for words, yet one can’t help but appreciate the details, especially such natural interplay between characters. Interestingly, the staff that supervises them are no more than a few years older than the kids themselves, occasionally displaying some of the same behavior based on similar backgrounds.
The anchor of the film is the lead supervisor Grace, Brie Larson, who is nothing less than a revelation in this film, displaying a range of emotion and a commitment to these kids that is nearly inhuman, as she embraces each and every one of them like a big sister, as if they are all part of the same family, where they all matter. Of course, these kids have all grown up thinking they don’t matter, as if there’s something wrong with them because they allowed someone bigger and stronger to abuse them, like it’s somehow their fault. The anger and shame they feel couldn’t be more pronounced, as it’s always there, lying just under the surface, where each kid has a distinct personality which is largely expressed in nonverbal ways, beautifully captured by the restless and constantly roving camera of Brett Pawlak that seems to get into everybody’s face, creating a continually developing series of impressionistic portraits of human intimacy. It hits you at some point that this isn’t like other films. Maybe it’s how uncomfortable you become by the dizzying camera movement, or the volcanic eruptions of spontaneous rage, where the staff has to physically hold these kids down to stop them from hurting someone, where they are assaulted by the most venomous, profanity-laced stream of insults imaginable, as if a part of Linda Blair from THE EXORCIST (1973) has somehow managed to infiltrate into the bloodstream of these kids. And then a short time later, when things have calmed down, they’ve only grown closer, as they helped shelter someone from the storm, becoming comrades in arms, sharing the most inexplicably intimate circumstances, remaining non-judgmental, and still being there for them afterwards. It’s not easy to understand how in one moment you are being spit upon, hated, and your life threatened in a demonic fury, and a few moments later you are genuinely hugging that same person. The emotional intensity on display is not what we’re used to, as it’s not make believe or exaggerated for effect, but is heartbreaking because it so accurately reveals what these kids are trying to express. This is the pain they have to live with every day.
Part of the brilliance of the film is the way it values personal connections and balances time spent both with the kids and the staff, slowly parceling out bits of information, interjecting humor and lighter moments, contrasting the difficulty of helping these kids with how hard it is maintaining trust in adult relationships, so that the overall effect is accumulated knowledge, where we’re always gaining greater insight into these lives. We quickly learn Grace is having an affair with fellow staffer Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), both of whom adore working with these kids, as it singularly defines who they are, people with a commitment to being there for those who have been hurt the most, living with and working with the most vulnerable among us, where she can be near saintly in her attitudes about helping others, but often can’t utter a word about her own feelings. Mason shows extraordinary patience in trying to deal with her, as she blocks him out sometimes, almost always because there’s something else on her mind that keeps her extremely guarded, as 24/7 she’s responsible for continually protecting her charge from huge reservoirs of darkness that always seem to be closing in on someone. Grace is an employee that doesn’t need to be told what to do. Working on the floor, she sees instinctively what needs to be done, and she protects these kids like a hovering angel. The unseen force in the room is being part of a government bureaucratic system, where there must be other short term units just like this one, where they all have to answer to a higher authority, like a doctor, a psychiatrist, an administrator, or a politician who sits at a desk and reads reports but doesn’t get the overall picture of what’s going on in the lives of these kids. When action is taken that literally shatters the confidence of one kid, Grace will rally to their defense, often to no avail, as she’s told “You are not their friend, and you are not their therapist. You’re here to create a safe environment, and that’s it…We’re not here to interpret tears.” But of course, Grace and her staff are the ones comforting these kids during their most agonizing moments, helping them survive their worst nightmares, where they rarely have the luxury to interpret coherent thought, as it’s almost always communicated in tears or unimaginable rage. One of the key moments of the film is listening to Marcus, the oldest kid on the unit who’s just days away from turning 18, scared shitless about becoming emancipated, bitterly battling the demons in his head as he raps about “The pretty pictures in my fuckin’ head are faded/Look into my eyes so you know what it’s like/ Living a life not knowing what a normal life’s like.”