Short Term 12 review: life in the long term

Short Term 12 green light Brie Larson Keith Stanfield

MaryAnn’s quick take…
A heartbreaking drama about the lingering affects of childhood abuse and neglect, even under the best of curative circumstances.
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

An abundance of violence. A lack of love. The results of these horrors are what Grace (Brie Larson: The Spectacular Now) faces every day in her job at the titular institution, a group home for at-risk teenagers who have been abused or neglected. As we watch her work with these utterly authentic kids — they are difficult and demanding, unable to articulate their pain and perhaps aware only subconsciously of their needs — one of the first questions we find ourselves asking is, Which is worse: abuse, or neglect? (There is no answer, but asking the question is seemingly an unavoidable horror: as if anyone gets to make that choice.)

Grace seems remarkably able to cope with kids like Marcus (LaKeith Stanfield), who tells terrible stories of maltreatment by his own mother and who is now facing life on his own: he’s aging out of the system and will have to leave soon. But new arrival Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever: The Spectacular Now) seems to perturb Grace in a way we haven’t seen in her before, and soon we come to appreciate that she gets the kids because she’s been in their situation. Her boyfriend, Mason (John Gallagher Jr.: Jonah Hex), works at the home as well, and couldn’t be more supportive as she starts to crumble; he’s also a survivor of institutional care, though a visit to the huge rambunctious foster family he was raised in suggests he hasn’t been quite as damaged as Grace or their charges.

This isn’t a relentlessly grim film: writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton based on his own experience working at a group home, and there’s an abundance of humor here, because even in the worst circumstances, people are still human and life is never without some respite, if only for sanity’s sake. (One thing this flick proves: Male filmmakers can create realistic, fully human, complicatedly messed-up female protagonists, if they bother to try.) But mostly, Short Term 12 wonders, heartbreakingly, whether even Grace and Mason are success stories, or if they too damaged to ever truly recover. Even under the best of curative circumstances, does the impact of childhood abuse and neglect linger so that it can never fully be overcome? It’s an awful thing to contemplate.

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