Short Term 12: Principled Fiction

By: Justin Pye

Not many can relate to the anxiety hidden in the phrase in loco parentis. If the phrase were true to its reality it may read: in perpetual fear or in need of help. I know this phrase and all its variations, yet my experience as a dorm parent at a boarding school cannot be compared to that of a service provider in a youth home.

Short Term 12 broaches this topic by allowing the audience to enter the home through the lens of an employee on his first day. I appreciated this tactic – it allows the audience to acclimatize to the alternate universe they are entering.

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Grace shows patience dealing with 17 year old Marcus. Photo:

As we begin to meet the characters, the writing somehow skips over the predictable rants of ill-behaved youth we’ve all seen and presents the young people as kids, just kids. And as the film progresses we are able to appreciate their idiosyncrasies as more than just anger and misbehavior; this is surely a product of selective casting and excellent direction.

Brie Larson as Grace is a dream. The character is compassionate, unrelenting and highly flawed. Because of these traits, she is able to make an impact in the children’s lives, which reveals one of the most poignant aspects of the film. In order to reach the youth, one has to “see” them and meet them where they are. And it is nearly impossible to “see” and understand a situation that you have not experienced.

Grace showed that youth in care need more than a therapist to probe and make recommendations. Sometimes they just need someone to sit there, sometimes they need someone to listen to them, and others they need someone to talk to them and share their life experiences.

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.

Throughout the film there is salient character development among most of the cast. We are able to see a few of the main characters evolve in what seems like a natural fashion, while avoiding the fairytale notions of happy endings.

Of course this work is fictional, and not to be applied to how the youth homes actually function. It’s principles, however, ring true.

Justin Pye is a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley’s School of Journalism and a Journalism for Social Change Fellow.

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