We think of scars as plain to see,
Disfigurements of normalcy,
And never could we guess the pain
Of people who do not complain.
While many bare and air their hurts,
Both recluses and extroverts,
With time they tend to hide regret
And cover what they can’t forget.
Both the mount and molehill end,
And yet the tolls they take depend
On what we each have faced before
And whether we can take much more.
The world is not known for its heart;
The people in it must do that part,
To take the scars concealed so well
And show the heaven beyond the hell.
MPA rating: R (for much language and some sexual references)
The end of the year is fast approaching, but I haven’t yet given up on finishing my Blindspot series. Short Term 12 earned a place on the list mainly because I was curious to see so many now-famous stars in what I might call an “incubator film.” I would compare it to 1983’s The Outsiders, which was a vehicle for multiple big-name actors before they were famous, such as Tom Cruise, Patrick Swayze, and Rob Lowe. Short Term 12 likewise highlighted the skills of Brie Larson, Lakeith Stanfield, and Rami Malek years before they were Oscar contenders, not to mention writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton.
Expanding Cretton’s own short film and based on his experiences working at a group home for troubled teens, the film is a masterwork of empathetic storytelling. A story of kids overcoming trauma could so easily have become maudlin or trite or else devolved into soul-crushing despair, but somehow the script tows the line between realism and hope. Larson plays Grace Howard, a line worker at the titular group shelter whose responsibility, as she tells new recruit Nate (Malek), is to only give the kids there a safe place, not to be their therapist or friend. Yet for teenagers struggling with distrust, abuse, and anxiety, that safe place and the act of listening and caring are worth more than any amount of formal therapy. However, when a sullen girl named Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) arrives, Grace is reminded of her own past trauma that threatens to overwhelm her.
Short Term 12 would be an interesting watch just for its cast alone. Look, Brie Larson before Room and Captain Marvel! Look, Lakeith Stanfield before Get Out and Judas and the Black Messiah! Rami Malek before Bohemian Rhapsody, John Gallagher, Jr. of 10 Cloverfield Lane, Kaitlyn Dever of Last Man Standing, Stephanie Beatriz of Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Encanto. And they all do phenomenal work, with Larson, Stanfield, and Dever especially giving Oscar-worthy performances. Yet the script is the real star, filled with brilliant individual scenes that give so much nuance to the characters and their struggles, whether it be a resentful rap delivered by Stanfield’s Marcus, a grateful toast from Gallagher’s Mason to his foster parents, or a children’s story by Jayden that has the same simplicity and achingly sad truth of The Giving Tree. Foul-mouthed outbursts are contrasted with moments of genuine compassion, and somehow none of it comes off as overly scripted or artificial.
The most meaningful theme I got from Short Term 12 was the sense that, for every terrible ordeal or wave of panic, “this too shall pass.” In the case of the kids lashing out, the adults have to literally hold them down to prevent them from hurting themselves or others, and it’s awful in the moment but ultimately a sign of caring once the intense emotions fade. Likewise, Grace’s apparent happiness is shattered by a succession of bad news, bringing her to the brink of despondency and regrettable life choices. Yet there is catharsis for everything, whether we see it or not, often making us better able to understand the pain of others and help them through it as well.
Short Term 12 is a hard watch at times, putting an unvarnished spotlight on teen distress that is so often kept out of sight, but it’s a highly rewarding one. I have always held up Amy Adams in Arrival being ignored for Best Actress as a notorious Oscar snub, and now I can add this film to the mix, since it was entirely and criminally passed over by the Academy. While Larson got her due two years later for Room, Cretton’s screenplay absolutely deserved a nomination, if not a win. I never would have guessed he would go on to Shang-Chi and the upcoming Avengers films, but it’s satisfying to see the humble beginnings of him and his up-and-coming stars. (We can thank this film for Stanfield’s whole acting career, since Cretton cast him in the original short and later tracked him down to get him to return for the film.) With its perceptive direction, star-making performances, and encouraging pro-life sentiment, it’s a film that shows that the best in people can outshine the worst.
Best line: (part of Marcus’s rap) “Look into my eyes so you know what it’s like to live a life not knowing what a normal life’s like.”
© 2022 S.G. Liput
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