Growing up, every child has had the dream of an endless sleepover or even simply a home away from home. Staying with peers and friends your age, meals being prepared and catered to you, and of course your own leisure time to do whatever you please. However, for the children and young adults in Short Term 12 an extended stay is anything but desired. The poignant film flawlessly depicts the struggles and rare albeit moving triumphs of those placed in the foster care system, leaving viewers tugged at the heartstrings.
The foster care group home eponymously named Short Term 12 houses a breadth of at-risk children from a plethora of socioeconomic and domestic backgrounds. Some of those residing in the home include Luis (Kevin Hernandez), a troublemaker with good intentions, and Sammy (Alex Calloway), a boy convinced that his stuffed animals are the embodiment of his family members. Equally diverse is the group of support staff and supervisors that monitor and tend to the children. Among them is adult supervisor Grace (played by Brie Larson) who is the undisputed veteran and head counselor among the staff. Having worked in the trenches with the kids, she not only knows how to connect and cope with each individual, but also has familiarized herself with every resident’s individual quirks, odds, and extremities. Despite Grace’s rather pouty, seemingly distant exterior and dedication to her routine like responsibilities at the facility, she never fails to exude a sense of warmth and respect for those she works with. She is the textbook individual that will not tolerate any excuses and desires everyone to participate in community discussions and interact amongst each other during free time.
Writer-director and Maui island native Destin Daniel Cretton loosely based this award winning Sundance film on his experiences working in a similar institution himself. By harnessing these personal experiences, Cretton brilliantly captures the essence and candidness of the foster care ecosystem. Perfectly intertwined with the characters’ lives is the set of rules and regulations that delineate their stay. Certain amenities and privileges, including the ability to merely watch television in the community room, require a specific “level.” Those who break the rules, namely the “no belts, no razors, no scissors, and (most importantly) no cussing” golden rule, are systematically reprimanded with a “level drop.” Additionally, Cretton’s experiences are embodied in the character Nate (Rami Malek), a new recruit to the staff. His journey to acquaint himself with those in the facility is just as immersive and instructional for the film viewers watching alongside. It’s these eccentricities that make this not only a great film, but also an intriguing experience from start to finish.
In stark contrast to Grace’s original sternness, we begin to see the truth behind her distant facade as her personal life becomes entangled with her day job. New resident Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), who doesn’t like “wasting time on short-term relationships,” refuses to acknowledge the fact that there is something wrong with her – much less that anyone can actually help her. She finds solace in isolating herself and remains unfriendly towards her fellow peers. After initial struggles to connect with Jayden on the same level as other residents, Grace finally finds common ground in both of their drawing capabilities. Unlike Grace’s portraits and other odd doodles, Jayden utilizes drawing as an outlet to communicate the emotions and troubles plaguing her for so long. Grace can’t help but empathize with the young teen and, as Jayden continuously reveals bits and pieces of herself, we learn that Grace was once a troubled teen herself that is yet to come to grips with the exact same issues.
A true crowning jewel of the film is Cretton’s unique direction and innovation with the camerawork. His implementation of a rather freehanded and non-stationary camerawork allows viewers to look through the lenses of the characters themselves. It is as if we are trailing right behind their shoulders as they walk. Plus, we are even lost in their same train of thought. As we see them dash across the field or sob into their palms, we truly can’t help but do the same. Cretton’s ability to capture that raw emotion and presence is nothing short of an outstanding feat. The film seems to evolve from a mere cinematic spectacle to an entirely lifelike biographical piece. To the untrained eye, the cinematography might appear to be shaky and unrefined, but it is this selective refinement that is truly outstanding. By incorporating a mix of obscurity and wading focus, the objects and people within the foreground attract the viewer’s attention and are not only a visual cue, but also a point of clarity.
The realism and sincerity behind the film highlights the undeniable truth within the nation’s foster care system. CEO Jeremy Kohomban of Children's Village, a New York based group home, is worried by the current state of the system and its detrimental effects when abused. He found that, "The longer kids stay in institutions, the less capable they are of reintegrating into society." Earlier this year, the Associated Press reported that, in certain New York communities alone, the number of foster care and group home cases has skyrocketed to upwards of 4,400 from a once 1,367 cases. Like the film name and facility suggests, the fictitious Short Term 12 complex is meant to be a temporary, interim solution for troubled kids until the City and County decides further action for the individual. However, the initial maximum twelve-month stay drones on to an extended residence until the individual reaches what is the pinnacle of adulthood – 18 years of age. As individuals begin to outgrow the system or merely escape, they are no longer within the jurisdiction of these foster care institutions. Sundance and SWSX Film critics praised Keith Stanfield for his portrayal of Marcus and his accuracy in illustrating this. As Marcus awaits his eighteenth birthday, he knows it is merely time to assimilate into the world he has been kept out of for over three years. He poetically describes that he has been “[living] a life not knowing what a normal life is like” by staying in the institution crafted to assist him.
Within the film itself, several residents recognize Short Term 12 as a place of solitude and an escape from their troubles. Likewise, many individuals attempt to flee the compound due to their feelings of detainment and distance from society. Stir Journal recently cited a California based study that found that approximately 22% of kids flee their respective foster homes. Although this number is supposedly less for those residing in a group home, the reality is that young adults are willingly choosing to abandon these safe houses to live on the streets or with those they deem as friends.
The childhood trauma riddling each of the characters in Short Term 12 makes it extremely easy for viewers to connect to the jagged troubles in their own lives. Although the film’s adamant use of crude language and rightfully deserved rated R rating may be off-putting to some, the language does contribute to the overarching visualization of who these individuals are and what these kids are experiencing. Cretton’s artistry in storytelling coupled with his unique craft in filmmaking is undeniably breathtaking. It is his unwavering reliance on empathy, sympathy, and triumph that enables viewers of any age to realize that we are all troubled, broken, and wanting to change – and that’s anything but short term.