Abused kids meet with Grace

Short Term 12 (M). Director: Dustin Cretton. Starring: Brie Larson, John Gallagher Jr, Kaitlyn Dever, Rami Malek, Keith Stanfield. 93 minutes

Those who know me know that, despite the earrings and stoic demeanour, I am a softie. Those people might roll their eyes if I told them that I spent three quarters of Short Term 12 suppressing sobs. I challenge any one of them not to be moved by this heartbreaking glimpse of life in a (fictional) American foster care facility.

Writer-director Cretton has dubbed his central character Grace (Larson). This is apt, as Grace is both a character and a state of being. As the lead supervisor at the facility, she oversees her charges with a combination of firmness and friendship. She strictly enforces rules and protocols while remaining unerringly empathetic, easily glimpsing the pain and trauma that lies just beneath the hostile or eccentric facade. I used to volunteer at a remand centre for young offenders, and would be amazed at the way in which the best of the staff there could negotiate the line between being liked and being respected. Grace epitomises this.

Grace's empathy has its roots in past experience, but the film reveals this only gradually. We see glimpses of it in her relationship with colleague and boyfriend Mason (Gallagher). At work he is her jocular offsider, at home her sweet and intimate partner; but there is a promised intimacy here to which Grace never fully surrenders, despite Mason's unfaltering patience and care. When Short Term 12 begins, Grace is at the height of her powers professionally, but personally she is showing signs of fraying. The secret from her past that gives her such a power of empathy is threatening to burst its seams and smother her.

The lines of what constitutes Grace are sketched out through her interactions with all the young residents of the facility, but in particular with Jayden (Dever), an adolescent girl with whom 20-something Grace shares a special affinity. Jayden is witty and defiant: when Grace is running her through the rules of the centre, Jayden supposes, sardonically, that she is not allowed to pin pictures of penises to her wall. 'Only if they're scientific,' Grace counter-quips. Later, we see Jayden's wall is plastered with just such biological diagrams.

Grace bonds with Jayden over a shared love of drawing, and gradually over frank conversation. Eventually, and due in part to the other stresses that are plaguing Grace, there are dramatic consequences to their interactions. However, there is also a sense that this relationship is typical of the technique and substance of Grace's work. The relationships she forms challenge and enhance both parties. Grace is able to help these young people because she encounters them as humans beings; and, in turn, Grace is touched and enriched by their humanity.

Short Term 12 is both authentic and low-key, but far from prosaic. The acting is naturalistic but resonates with deep feeling; as Grace, Larson's eyes are always sad, even when she's grinning. The dialogue is astutely observed and plump with subtext and implications: in introducing himself to the residents, new worker Nate (Malek) smilingly, stupidly declares that he has 'always wanted to work with underprivileged kids', a gaffe that not only has immediate dramatic consequences, it strongly suggests that Nate is unlikely to thrive in this role.

Appealingly, the script's high emotion is carried at times by various literary devices. When Jayden eventually opens up to Grace it is via a horrifying parable that she has written about an octopus and a shark. Tough teen Marcus (Stanfield) uses rap to offer a devastating insight into his own crushing family life. (Marcus' subplot turns out to be one of the film's most powerful.) The young people's artistic endeavours to lift the mood of a peer who has had a heartbreakingly bad birthday provides one of the most irresistible tearjerker moments.

This is a sad film, but every frame seems also alive with hope. Even hapless Nate gets his own kind of redemption, with a small act of rebellion that touches the life of a young boy who has been stifled by therapeutic niceties. This exchange happens without words; just a glance, a gesture and a smile. Around the larger picture of Grace's journey of self-recovery, Short Term 12 is a veritable collage of these kinds of small stories, some funny, some heartbreaking, all human, and all with something to say about the state of grace.

Tim Kroenert headshotTim Kroenert is the assistant editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Brie Larson, Dustin Cretton, John Gallagher Jr., Kaitlyn Dever, Rami Malek, Keith Stanfield



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