Short Term 12 (2013)

23 01 2014

Before I even watched Short Term 12, I knew what I was probably going to think of it. That’s not to say that my response was already pre-formed, but instead that the makeup of film such as this is so typical, that my feelings towards such films tend to be uniform. An arty, independent film with a big name actress that looks a bit better than the rest of independent cinema. Oh, and it’s also about troubled teenagers, which sounds like a dismissive category, but when such depictions are done right, they’re easy for me to love. I figured I would have to wrestle with a certain sentimental or cathartic hitting me and clashing with what might not actually be a good film. This is a worthy effort, there’s a lot to admire, but good intentions aren’t invincible and the film’s subtext seems like a problem that can’t be ignored.


Grace and Mason are both counselors are a foster-care facility. They’re passionate, thoughtful, and seemingly experienced authoritative figures. The conflicts of the day are many, but their reserved nature balances the chaos of the establishment. The two live together and there is implications that their romance isn’t exactly new. They aren’t married, but they live in a spacious house and their closeness suggests that such a step would not be far away. In the mean time, Grace is pregnant and she intends to have it terminated. Back at the foster-care facility, fifteen year old Jayden arrives. A sarcastic and cynical 15 year old girl and a frequent victim of self-harm. She puts a wall against Grace, but the two eventually bond, instigating Grace herself to finally open up about her own past.


As I’ve hinted at already, there’s something very inviting about Short Term 12. Aesthetically, it’s not exactly groundbreaking, but the conventional “realistic” aesthetic (ie steadicam/shaky handheld camera) is given a visually boost here. Yes, there’s a lot of out of focus closeups that aren’t particularly inspired but visual style is a least a tad above just typical middlebrow Hollywood fare. One could argue that an “uglier” style (think the similarly-themed Manic) might be beneficial to building an atmosphere that is, above all else, unpredictable. The film’s tonal shifts are intentionally abrupt and I think poetic, yet not intrusively so is a good fit here. Basically, I like the look achieved here, although it’s nothing new nor is it especially impressive. It’s nothing more than “nice” looking, but it shouldn’t be anything more.


Cretton’s problems as a filmmaker begin when he forces psychology into his characters. One of the most dramatic sequences in the film involves a standoff between Grace and the facility’s manager. He’s allowed Jayden to return to her father, who Grace has discovered to be abusive. The dialogue here might be cringe-worthy in someone’s else hands, but Brie Larson delivers the line “she told me the only way she knew how” with a force that forgoes any reservations about sincerity. The discourse of this sequence is about the difficulty in communicating something as traumatic as abuse. Opening up isn’t easy, yet Cretton himself seems to draw the motivations of his characters to these hacky psychological reasonings. He contradicts himself by saying there’s an easy for anxiety and unrest, and even worse he suggests there’s a way to cure it.


Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin ends with the film’s protagonists, Neil and Brian finally reconnecting some fifteen plus years after being sexually abused. Neil holds Brian and explains his thoughts via voiceover, ” I wanted to tell Brian that it was over now and that everything would be okay. But that was a lie, plus I couldn’t speak anyway. I wish there was some way to go back and undo the past.” Araki’s ending is cathartic and transcendent without accepting the idea that the trauma that abuse of this kind brings is not someone can just overcome. Cretton, on the other hand, attempts to cure Grace through catharsis. She meets up with Jayden and the two triumphantly smash his car with a baseball bat. The moment is moving and certainly we can celebrate the release of all that built up pain, but the reality is that the pain hasn’t been released. I’m supportive of them beating the shit out of an abusive father’s car, but you wake up from that and the suffering of memories can come back and hit you. Cretton doesn’t allow for this and instead, his film suggests that Grace has completely moved on and is ready to start a family.


The cathartic car-smashing sequence comes right before a montage that, as artfully done as it is, has the ideological content of a Hallmark film. The music builds up Grace’s accomplishment, and we see her and Mason at the doctor. Viewing her fetus’ heartbeat, tears streak down her face and without a word, we understand that she will happily continue along with the pregnancy. The superficial anti-choice politics of such a sequence isn’t the problem on its own. Instead, the bigger problem comes with its proximity to a scene confronting real child abuse. The film frames Grace terminating her pregnancy alongside her father abusing her. The juxtaposition is sappy and eye-rolling, not to mention sort of disgusting. I can ignore some boring anti-choice subtext in an art film, but to frame that choice as the equivalent to her own abuse is, well, dumb. It’s ultimately just another mark against an already flawed enough film. I’m not exactly mad about it, just kind of disappointed that it goes the easiest route possible.




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