This post discusses some minor plot points from Short Term 12.
“He ran away again and two days later, someone found him dead in the bushes,” Grace (Brie Larson), a staffer at a long-term care facility for teenagers who can’t live with their biological parents, tells Nate (Rami Malek), a new co-worker, on his first day at the group home in the opening scene of Short Term 12. Nate’s been getting an education in one of the trickiest parts of work at his new job: the fact that staff can’t touch residents to restrain them from leaving the facility once they pass a gate at the edge of a yard, and as a result, must resort to verbal persuasion, sometimes following the kids in their care for miles, on public transportation and on foot. Grace’s coworker and boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) has been giving the policy a jaunty spin, as is his wont, and as is Grace’s, she feels the need to set Nate straight. “That’s the real ending to that story.”
Short Term 12, an exceptional second feature from filmmaker Destin Cretton, with whom I’ll publish a long conversation on Monday, is a story substantially about stories–the stories pop culture tells about children facing trouble and the adults who work with them, the way creativity becomes an act of survival, and the tendency in our culture to assume that stories that are dark or that end unhappily are somehow truer than those that end in joy and affirm the value of hope. It’s also an extremely funny, tender romance, a combination that makes the movie one of the best of the year.
The film’s concern with story and language is present from the beginning, and not just in Grace’s dour corrective to Mason’s narrative. Nate immediately steps wrong when he refers to the residents of Short Term 12 as “underprivileged” in front of Marcus (Keith Stanfield), who’s about to turn 18 and age out of his tenure there. “What the fuck is that supposed to mean? I want to know what he means ‘underprivilged,'” Marcus demands of Nate. “Think about your words before you speak.”
Rather than the accepted power dynamic in such movies, in which adults from a position of privilege deign to work with black and Latino children, and change and are changed by them–Jack Donaghy sums up it up when he tells Liz Lemon “I would like to be Michelle Pfeiffer to your angry black kid who learns that poety is just another way to rap.”–Short Term 12 makes clear that there’s relatively little difference between the line staff like Nate, Mason, and Grace, whose primary job is to provide a safe environment for their charges, rather than to evaluate them, counsel them, or advocate for them within the social services bureaucracy, and the kids they work with.
Grace’s style with the residents is defined by her willingness to share her own life with them. “You need to tell me what the hell is going on. Assault and drug possession–that’s enough to get your ass thrown in jail. You’re out of here in less than a week. You’re so much smarter than this. I know it’s scary out there,” she tells Marcus when he, anxious about the date when he’ll have to move out and live on his own, gets himself in trouble. “Getting thrown in jail isn’t what you want to do. My dad’s been in there for ten years. That’s not what I want for you.” With Jaden (Kaitlyn Dever) a furious young woman who’s sent to Short Term 12 after she’s been thrown out of a number of other facilities, and who has a penchant for self-harm, Grace teases her open slowly by telling stories about her own life. “How many boyfriends did she have?” Jaden asks Grace, who’s been explaining that she got money out of her mother as compensation for her revolving door of relationships. “Enough that I was able to save up to buy one of those portable CD players with anti-shock protection,” Grace replies. “You’re old,” Jaden swipes at her, but Grace is ready for it. “Whatever,” she declares. “Those things were cool.”
Mason, by contrast, may spin yarns to his fellow staffers, but with the residents, he’s a primarily a listener, keeping his own upbringing with a Mexican-American foster family to himself and to Grace. Together, they’re a powerful combination. After Marcus’ transgression, it’s Mason in whom he confides a powerful narrative of his mother’s neglect and abuse, and of how hard it’s been for him “To live a life without knowing what a normal life’s like.” Marcus doesn’t need more from Mason than his attention: “It’s cool, man,” he explains after a shuddery bout of tears. “I just need to shave my head. You think Grace will still shave my head?” When she agrees, it’s an illustration that the best thing she can give Marcus is support for his own good, self-affirming decisions, rather than passing along some mystical white-lady knowledge that will make up for all the things his mother failed to give him. “Is it still lumpy? I used to keep my hair long because she hit me,” Marcus asks Mason and Grace as the hair comes off under her deftly-wielded razor. “Is it still lumpy?…Pretty smooth. What about the back? Is it smooth? No scars or nothing?”
It’s not only their childhoods that the staff and Short Term 12 residents have in common. Mason and Grace may use storytelling as a counseling tactic, but a number of their charges make more deliberate art. Sammy, one of the younger residents of the facility and one of the regular runaways, has a collection of dolls who are stand-ins for his sisters, lost to him in some unspecified trauma. He’s inventive in other ways, too. “Is that a real game or a game that you just made up?” Grace asks him when he proposes a new entertainment for the residents. “It’s a real game that I just made up,” he explains to her. Marcus’ considerable skills as a lyricist are applied to the theraputic purging of pain, sure, but he also employs them to tweak Mason and Grace, who have tried to keep their three-year relationship on the down-low at work. “Mas, I love you like a brother but I gotta say / That when it come to being discreet, you’re a disgrace / I mean he think we all don’t know about him and Grace / On the low, undercover tryin’ to date,” he pokes the staffers in front of the residents after a community meeting. And Jaden turns out to be a gifted artist who reads Grace a story about an octopus who ponders an offer of friendship from a shark that comes with conditions. When the octopus asks what she has to do, “‘Not much,’ said the shark. ‘Just let me eat one of your arms.’ Nina had never had a friend, and she wondered if this was what you had to do to get one.”
These innovations, and the tremendous writing that power them would be enough to make Short Term 12 one of the better movies of the year. But it’s bolstered by a tender and perceptive look at a pivotal moment in Grace and Mason’s romance, and the events that make them new to each other. The pair have an easy, specific back-and-forth. “You don’t have to be jealous of Floyd,” Grace tells Mason when she arrives home late by bicycle. “Your bike has a name now?” Mason demands, mock-jealous. “Of course he does. We’re very close,” Grace tells him, feigning intimacy. “There’s no way his seat is better than mine,” Mason declares. “Fuck you, Floyd.” On a special evening, Mason explains to Grace that he got her “Flowers. They represent the peculiar thoughts that grow out of your gorgeous mind.”
Like many settled couples, their sex life has waned a little. And they’re still dealing with a central flaw in their relationship, Grace’s inability to accept Mason’s kindness and tenderness towards her. “Why are you so nice to me?” she wants to know. When he proposes, her first reaction is “Are you serious?” “This is how it works. Let me take your hand so I can walk you through this shit. That is what I signed up for,” Mason insists to Grace when her past threatens to upset her hard-won equilibrium. “I’ve been waiting for you for a really long time.” But over the course of the movie, even his patience with Grace is tested: even when he knows that she knows she’s behaving irrationally, that her behavior is a form of self-harm, there’s only so much rejection Mason can take.
But in the end, Short Term 12 suggests that there’s something radical about optimism. The movie closes with Mason telling Nate another story, this one about meeting Marcus for coffee during his break at his new job at the city’s aquarium. “Marcus drinks cappucinos?” Nate, asks, finally relaxed enough to enjoy himself. “Apparently!” Mason says, explaining that early in his time at Short Term 12, Marcus nursed a futile crush on a girl named Liza Green. And during Marcus’ coffee with Mason, “Just like in the fucking movies, the bathroom door flies open and out comes Liza Green.” It’s one thing to wear your viewers out on pat happy endings. It’s quite another feat entirely to remind them what it’s like to be surprised by joy.