It’s very easy to get a touch disillusioned with films these days. The simple fact is, when it comes to big budget pictures, it’s hard to find ones that are truly putting something on screen worth seeing. Trailers are telling the entire plot, most big budget movies are adaptations or sequels and it can feel like you’ve seen every film five times already in one way or another. I’d argue that now more than ever, we need the indie film scene to fill the void, to remind us of what films can be. They can be more that just a big budget and some good looking people flipping about the place; they can tell a story worth hearing, with characters worth caring about and an overall point that’s worth highlighting. Written and Directed by Destin Cretton, Short Term 12 is all of the above, and then some.
Set largely in a foster home for at risk teenagers, within the first five minutes, you definitely get the impression that this is a film that is going to challenge you a little bit. The subject matter isn’t light-hearted, nor is the portrayal of the subject matter. Things are dark, things are difficult, and similarly we’re introduced to a cast of characters that are dark and difficult and complicated, and we get this impression very quickly. Focussing primarily on staff members Grace (Brie Larson, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World) and Mason (John Gallagher, Jr), and home members Markus (Keith Stanfield) and Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), it becomes obvious the story being told is one that is less a sordid tale with a beginning, middle and end with revelation and closure, and more a moment in time when these four lives affect each other in an deeply meaningful way during some very difficult decisions and situations for each of them.
It’s certainly a tried and tested way of story-telling in recent years, particularly amongst indie films, but here it really works, and quickly envelopes you and gets you interested in what’s about to go down – and what’s about to go down is pretty grim.
Splitting the narrative almost equally between the staff members and the teenagers, we get a very well-rounded look at life both behind-the-scenes as a staff member and as a teenager in need staying in a foster home. The difficulties are varied, and the staff’s response is at times creative, at times confused, at times cruel, but always resolute as they try to be both the young people’s friends and guardian, but also someone who has to keep things to a standard while the system works it’s magic for them. The two main young people we’re shown, Markus and Jayden, present two of the ever-present problems that a centre such as this faces. Markus is leaving, and Jayden is the new kid on campus. Markus doesn’t want to go, he’s scared of who he is, and who he was, and of life being like it was before the home. Jayden is just completely confused and treats the world like she’s been treated; badly. It would have been really easy of the film-makers to make these characters completely screwed up archetypes that the staff members have to save, but they don’t. The film’s greatest strength is how equally everyone is written. No-one ‘saves’ anyone, and they all need saving, at one point or another, from someone or another. That’s important to put into a film like this, because that’s life. There’s no superheroes or incredible characters that can swoop in and save the day, there’s people banging and bouncing into each other, hopefully leaving a positive influence along the way and not making too much of a mess. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say the characters here are amongst the most ‘human’ I’ve seen on screen.
‘To live a life not knowing what a normal life’s like’
When I say ‘human’, I don’t necessarily mean well-written with a good grasp on what it means to be human, I mean, genuinely, the feel of this film is somewhat removed from being a film. It actually at times feel closer to that of a documentary, a look at the lives of people trying to make their little world better, and the little people trying to find a better world. Helping ‘at-risk’ teenagers is a line of work that is almost void of any real hope or any real reward or release. It’s a very literal shit storm of trying to fix problems when they come and creating hope and creating smiles where we wouldn’t imagine there could be any. Happiness doesn’t live in these places, but the potential for it does, and this film captures it as well as I’ve ever seen it. No underlying subtext, no big metaphor, no obvious Oscar bait. Just a film, about some people, being people together, trying to make sure they’re still people tomorrow.
Short Term 12 is available now on DVD, Blu-Ray and digitally.