Sometimes it’s the nature of the industry that provokes this response – call centres, advertising, or PR, for instance – but more often than not it’ll be a job I know I don’t have the spine for. Anything medical, for starters. But I’m particularly baffled and humbled by the resolve of carers and social workers, people who daily face the kind of tension between human compassion and professional obligation that would reduce me to a stuttering mess every time. These are roles that admit and demand a certain level of intimacy with those under supervision, irrespective of how welcoming they may be towards such intrusions. Yet there are boundaries that mustn’t be crossed: a carer is not a doctor; a social worker is not a legal guardian. The empathy these roles require must somehow be restricted to within their professional remits; you mustcare, but only up to the point past which it’s out of your hands.
Short Term 12 is a drama focusing on these kind of people. It escaped my attention when it was on general UK release back in November, but since appearing on several ‘Best of 2013’ lists it’s arrived back in Brighton as part of the Picturehouse’s ‘Discover Tuesday’ programme. It won the Audience Award at the SXSW Film Festival, so if you have strong feelings either way about modern American indie movies you’ll probably be able to place its tone and dialogue style somewhere in the right ballpark. But that’s not to be reductive – director Destin Cretton keeps things warm without sentimentalising, and the film’s irony and self-awareness levels barely register. This is all as it should be, because Short Term 12 is in earnest, presenting the inhabitants of its teenage foster-care facility as vulnerable, complex, talented and nuanced human beings, rather than an ensemble of quotable quirks.
Brie Larson has deservedly won praise for her performance as twentysomething Grace, who seems to have unofficially taken on the role of Head Counsellor at the facility by her uncanny ability to find the right register to handle and communicate with each individual teen in turn, even when the spiralling tensions within the group threaten to evade her control. She works alongside her long-term boyfriend Mason and two others, including a newbie called Nate whose fumbling, rabbit-in-the-headlights inexperience provides a few low-key laughs as well as a neat entry point for the audience.
Grace and Mason are young, down-to-earth and hardworking, and in their moments of private repose they are revealed as a pair of thoroughly ‘good people’. It’s rare to find a narrative in which no character is openly antagonistic or even slightly suspect – the staff have the patience of saints and the kids are merely troubled, never nasty. The movie’s villains are all unseen: they are the neglectful or abusive parents, or the ill-informed psychiatrists, whose actions have led the kids to this facility in the first place. What this lends to the film in story terms is quite intriguing; we’re watching a group of people who are in the process of coming out from the shadows of their past difficulties, while being forced in the meantime to occupy a kind of legal limbo until they turn eighteen years old. It’s an emotional quarantine zone where blame cannot be attributed to anyone in particular. The tension is the outcome of all their developmental difficulties. How can these characters develop if they have been consigned to a sort of stasis, for being ‘unmanageable’?
Behind Grace and Mason’s sensitive and functional professional manner, they are a couple whose relationship is reaching a moment of crisis. Over the course of a family party scene, the connection between the counsellors and the foster-home kids coheres into a strong and resonantly emotional statement, and I’m too spoiler-conscious to risk saying any more about it. By this point, perhaps halfway through, we have already met the new girl, a snarky and artistic fifteen-year old named Jayden with whom Grace strikes up a tentative friendship. Though the generation gap is wide enough for Jayden to have teasingly labelled Grace “old”, there’s an identification between them, initially based upon a shared sense of humour. Their deepening relationship becomes the central plot thrust of Short Term 12, leading to the near-collapse of Grace’s professional demeanour. On the cusp of a new stage of adulthood, she finds herself in danger of receding into her own troubled history.
Larson’s gradual exposure of the damaged teen beneath the surface of this inspirational foster carer is pretty much revelatory. She deserves all the plaudits she’s earned for her performance and more. The youngsters are all very impressive too, particularly Kaitlyn Dever as Jayden and Keith Stanfield as the sullen and weary Marcus.
If I have one reservation about Short Term 12, it’s that the ‘reveals’ in the narrative feel a little bit too cleverly orchestrated. We should be affected because of our empathy with the characters, and we are, but the way they are delivered for impact sometimes feels too much like smart screenwriting. But this is an American indie, not a cold-as-ice European arthouse movie, and more importantly than that, it wants to connect with and ultimately uplift its audience. This isn’t a study of cruelty or misfortune, it’s a story about the rocky path to overcoming such things within the American welfare system. A timely and welcome theme handled with sensitivity, and sharply structured into a compelling narrative.
Words: David Hamilton-Smith