Short Term 12: A Collection of Reviews

Earlier this summer, the producer of “Short Term 12” allowed members of The Chronicle staff and fellows in our Journalism for Social Change program to review the film, which debuted in Los Angeles and New York last weekend and begins to open nationwide on August 30 (click here for showtimes).

Below are selected parts of each review, with links back to each full review:

From Daniel Heimpel, publisher of The Chronicle of Social Change, who in 2010 saw an early short version of the film before its makers received enough funding to do a full production:

I applaud Destin Cretton and Asher Goldstein – the writer/director and producer – who took that little white DVD and turned it into a film that will speak to the hearts of those who work in the field, were raised in foster care or who are as blind to what these children face as I was back in 2007.

And I thank them. Because, the story of foster care is more than political victories and incremental or even sweeping changes to the system. It is more than salacious newspaper headlines and political proclamations. The story is the children and the every-day people who step up and fight for them.

From Tim Morrison, graduate student at California-Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy:

I’ve never been inside a group home, and my experiences most relate with the winner of the ‘most pathetic character’ award, Nate. Awkward and overwhelmed, Nate announces his patronizing, naïve ambitions on day one: “I’ve just always wanted to work with underprivileged kids.”

He’s instantly a buffoon, and I’m reminded of my own nineteen-year-old buffoonery at the Berkeley homeless clinic. At the clinic, I remember ‘contributing’ my unwavering, one-dimensional nods of ‘concern.’ In short, I lacked the empathy needed to actively listen to and learn from the stories and insights filling the walls of that clinic.

From Lauren Gonsalves, a graduate student at California-Berkeley’s School of Social Welfare:

I have to the share words that were ringing throughout my head from nearly the beginning to the end of Short Term 12: poor boundaries!

“Grace” who immediately emerges as a tough love (but not too tough) residential counselor who adores her “kids” and can empathize with their pain with more sincerity than most, breaks several cardinal rules of doing this delicate work.

Although, it is often to the discretion of the counselor, and the facility in which one works, raw self-disclosure is often discouraged. As a “frontline staff,” emotionally bleeding onto the young people with whom one is meant to support can be very dangerous and often detrimental.

Allowing broken children to become privy to one’s personal sorrows, especially when in the position of a caring and stable counselor, has never been an encouraged practice. Furthermore, when “Grace” goes to the home of “Jayden’s” father, prepared to finish him with a baseball bat, only to be interrupted by “Jayden” herself, I cringed at how this staff failed to hold herself together.

From Bonita Tindle, student, San Francisco State University and former foster youth:

The characters of the kids were realistic, they looked like any other kid. I can say that, in terms of their background stories, there were too many abuse stories. A childhood in a group home without an abusive background is equally traumatizing. There should have been a focus on one kid without abuse.

Grace was awesome. She is a good example of the people that care for youth in group homes. Sometimes I wondered if her dedication was realistic. She followed a traumatized teen to her home, a trip that must have taken hours. She stays at the hospital after another teen attempts suicide with his very own blood on her shirt. She even smashes the windows of an abusive fathers car with a baseball bat, only after she decides not to smash his face.

From Lynsey Clark, a graduate student at California-Berkeley’s School of Social Welfare:

The heart of the film lies in the bonds between the young staff and the residents, which provide moments of catharsis and poignancy, but not in the usual places.

It’s these moments of realness that gives the film authenticity, which may be credited to Cretton’s experience working in foster homes before turning to filmmaking. This authenticity is also reflected in the characters development, which is anything but the stereotypical.

Its characters are complex, smart, and surprising.  Marcus, the young man on the verge of aging out of the foster care system, is initially depicted as volatile and angry but proves to be intelligent and articulate when expressing his feelings toward the abuse he experienced while selling drugs as a ten year old for his strung out mother. Jayden the unfriendly Goth girl from a nice house in the suburbs hides her bruises.

From Justin Pye, a graduate student at California-Berkeley’s School of Journalism:

The dynamic between Grace and Jayden illustrated one of the most difficult situations service providers face: trying not to get too involved. It was obvious that Grace saw herself in Jayden and wanted to help.

While the baseball bat incident (though well-played) was cinematic and over the top, it shows how easy it is to get too involved in a kid’s life. In the end, their relationship represents the necessity for emancipated youth and other survivors of abuse/neglect to participate in the child welfare system. Sometimes those who have experienced abuse are better able to recognize the signs. Signs, which if gone unnoticed, can cause the system to release a child into the hands of his/her abuser.

From Evan Molineux, summer intern for Fostering Media Connections and student at Claremont McKenna College:

The only people in the film that are able to truly understand the raw emotions of the children living in the home are their caregivers who have been in their shoes and experienced similar trauma. They do not try and correct the minds of the children or offer advice in an attempt to change them, but instead realize that they are there to create a safe environment.  The caregivers recognize that no matter what they do, they will not be able to erase the trauma and hardships faced by these kids but understand that by providing them with a caring environment they can lay the foundation for a meaningful future.

From John Kelly, editor-in-chief, The Chronicle of Social Change:

In Cretton’s world, authenticity becomes the currency of competence for adults at Short Term 12. Grace and Mason, the two veterans of the place, earn the respect of the youths at least in part because they both had personal experiences with abuse and abandonment. A new staffer, clowned by the kids upon arrival for his insincere words and actions, gains credibility as he lets his guard down and takes an interest.

Cretton’s is not a film meant to push the discussion one way or another on group care, though I think it makes a subtle and artistic statement on the potential price of staff turnover in this field. It is a reminder that the innate humanity of the child welfare system is its greatest asset and challenge, a fact that should be remembered in every discussion of federal law, state policy and program evaluation.

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John Kelly
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John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.