SHORT TERM 12 (Destin Daniel Cretton, 2013)
At a foster care facility for troubled teens, Grace (Brie Larson) works as a line staff, maintaining order and making sure the youths under her watch do not escape the premises, or worse, slit their wrists with sharp objects, say scissors or a shard of glass.
The job is anything but ordinary. You will find yourself sprinting after a runaway every once in a while, or get spat in the face, or worse, get too awfully attached to these kids.
Such is the bittersweet tale that forms the core of writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton's SHORT TERM 12, which is based on his earlier short film with the same title. The film begins as the facility's staff engage in a breaktime banter where Mason (John Gallagher, Jr.) recounts to newbie Nate (Rami Malek) a story of how he once chased a mean runaway kid and ended up in an embarrassing ordeal. Soon after, a young boy named Sammy (Alex Calloway) tries to flee the facility, which prompts Grace and Mason in pursuit.
We see the routine inside the facility: the kids draw, play, watch TV, engage in roundtable discussions, and tell each other how their day is going so far. We meet the soon-to-be 18 years old Marcus (Keith Stanfield), a teen with so much angst in his body, that the thought of him leaving the facility (as is the rule for those who will be turning 18) doesn't necessarily excite him.
Then there's Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), a talented but volatile young girl to whom Grace surprisingly identifies with. Grace finds herself drawn to her, eager to understand what haunts her.
With equal amounts charm and pathos, SHORT TERM 12 paints us a very vivid portrait of a social system all in ruins, and what's amazing is that we find out soon enough that the very persons tasked to oversee the welfare of these abused youngsters are victims themselves. In seeing how emotionally fragile Grace, for example really is, the film achieves a perfect ironic paradigm, where the teacher becomes the student and the student becomes the teacher in this subject called life.
There's moments of serenity in the movie where we are left to observe the teenagers in their safe zones, or Grace when she's alone with her thoughts. Occasionally there are bursts of joy even from simple gestures like when a guardian tries to listen to whatever a kid is listening to in her headset, and yet the film also offers the nail-biting suspense of anticipation, where the characters make drastic decisions, and you don't want them to do it because you have been so attached with their plight. As the film progresses, one may find himself or herself drawn to the kids' welfare like Grace. The film has that power to make you actually care.
One thing is for sure, every anecdote in the movie is worth listening to, and more often than not, they will break your heart. But the movie will not leave you in despair, as it tells us that whatever our burden, we can always get back up and start over.