Grace is the supervisor of the day staff at a foster care facility. She's her live-in boyfriend's boss and uses the strength of their relationship to best suit the needs of the young people under her care. When a new foster girl named Jayden digs up memories of her own troubled past, Grace struggles to find the balance between compassion and professionalism in her career. Short Term 12 is a gentle, moving drama about real problems. Each child in that foster care facility has a story to tell and there's no way to know all of them. The few that are focused on present a broad range of major issues. From a child struggling to deal with massive emotional trauma to a teenager fighting change as he ages out of the facility, the foster children are each struggling to find a way to keep going that works for them. A child being abused by a parent is not going to need the same kind of attention as a troublemaker who likes to push buttons to get a rise out of people.
The very nature of the facility--a temporary safe home for children waiting for a more permanent living situation--forces the children onto the same schedule and plans with little room for structured individual attention. Aside from medication and therapy, every child is left with the same expectations. No cursing. No closing your bedroom door. Participate in daily recreational activities. Brush your teeth. But like children do all over the world, the foster children rebel in small ways to carve out their own identities. Negative attention is still attention and the day staff have to find the balance between friendship and authority to keep everyone at the facility safe.
The employees offer an interesting parallel to the foster children, showcasing the privilege that comes with adulthood even if their childhoods weren't the best.A new employee shows up for his first day of work and immediately upsets a foster child by marginalizing their collected experience into a buzzword for charitable work that looks good on a resume. Other employees follow the schedule and only intervene if a child is breaking the rules. Grace's boyfriend Mason aims for friendship but struggles with offering advice that applies to each individual child.
Grace, however, excels at the job because she has a genuine connection with the children. She has not had an easy life and, just like the children, she's not sure how to best deal with that trauma. What she can do is give everything she has to make the best choices for the children. This includes putting her job on the line to strengthen the bond between her and Jayden so Jayden can start to learn to trust other people again.
A character like Grace could easily become a Mary Sue, practically perfect in every way and unmatched in dedication and compassion in the workplace. No one involved in Short Term 12 allows this to happen. Writer/director Destin Cretton pushes for enough edge and transformation in Grace's character to make it clear she's not a perfect person.
The text on the page can only do so much. Brie Larson embodies Grace with an honest and subtle performance that never feels affected. Grace feels real because Larson makes her real. She balances her younger costars in every scene, matching their energy levels and body language like a mirror into their psyches. It helps to build a welcome sense of awkwardness to the character. If Grace isn't working directly with the children, she's barely present in her own life. She's not comfortable with who she is and what she's expereinced, so she finds fulfillment by fighting as hard as she can for the safety and sanity of the foster children.
Short Term 12 is so quiet and honest in its presentation of life at the foster center that you might not notice all the storylines slowly moving towards each other. When everything peaks at the same moment, it's like watching seeing slow motion footage suddenly go into real time. It's alarming and unnerving in the best way possible. There's no more time to play with power dynamics and privilege because some of these children and adults are out of time to get their lives straightened out. It's a masterful juggling act that elevates Short Term 12 into something truly special.
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