Short Term 12 is a fictional film that offers the uninitiated viewer a portal into the days, months and years experienced by kids and workers involved in residential foster care. It is a world few people are even aware of and even less can understand.
Writer/Director Destin Cretton and his small but skilled cast – viewers might recognize John Gallagher, Jr. from HBO’s The Newsroom, or Rami Malek from The Master – deftly drive home two stories about the subject at hand.
The first is about the youths placed into homes like Short Term 12, a spare building with small bedrooms and cramped group spaces. Without giving away any of the wonderful story woven by Cretton, I will say that he succeeds in conveying the truth that youths in group homes might arrive for common cause, but do so with unique mixtures of assets and deficits.
There are really only a few root reasons for which a youth might find themselves in a group home. At some point in their past, they were either abused or severely neglected by their family, or they were surrendered by that family to the state.
But as Cretton’s characters demonstrate, this shared history does not create a “past is prologue” situation. The abusive past of Marcus, the oldest protagonist in the film, has led him to a very different state than the slightly younger Jayden.
The arcs of both characters include unpredictable moments of intense crisis and progress. Meanwhile, another child at Short Term 12 struggles to break free from a cycle of reclusiveness and outbursts that is painful to watch.
Perhaps the most poignant line from Short Term 12 comes from lyrics penned and rapped by Marcus: “Look in my eyes so you know what it’s like to live a life not knowin’ what a normal life’s like.”
The second story is about the front-line workers charged with providing a sense of security and hope for these many children, whose circumstances have to some extent stripped them of both. In Short Term 12, the workers are all twenty-somethings who invest in the troubled lives of their young clientele while also dealing with the very real challenges in their own lives.
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.
Short Term 12 won the 2013 Grand Jury Award for Narrative Feature at the SXSX Film Festival, and will be released in August.
John Kelly is the editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change