It is easy for those who come from stable and nurturing homes to sympathize with those who have not. Conversely, it is rare to find people who can empathize with those from neglectful and abusive homes. Problems can never be solved by the mere realization that there is a problem; a solution is built from a tenacious initiative. This initiative is most easily seen not by the people who donate to charities, but the people who live off meager salaries solely to help make a better future for kids who know nothing besides their harsh upbringing. Counselors dedicate their lives to helping troubled kids know that they are loved and to hopefully change their paths in life. This is what Short Term 12 highlights while it weaves a heartfelt journey of a group-home for at risk kids and the counselors who help them. Director and writer Destin Daniel Cretton shows audiences that tragedy does not forget tragedy, but can find peace in love and kindness. Encapsulating that of the human condition, with equal parts wit and grit, Short Term 12 delivers an emotionally jarring story that moves audiences with its calamitous realism.
Cretton is successful in creating this gut-wrenching realism through the use of mere handheld cameras for filming. This seemingly simple-minded technique creates an unexpectedly honest intimacy between audience and character, bridging the line between fiction and reality, thus making it possible for someone not of the same background to relate wholeheartedly. The lack of excessive film equipment manages to eliminate the screen as a barrier for audiences. The slow and slight trembling of the camera as it pans in and out on the lives’ of the characters designs an imperfect authenticity, much like the tragic lives in the film. For example, the persistent focus on the head counselor Grace picking at her thumb, sometimes to the point of bleeding, shows audiences Grace’s internal struggle as she meets newcomer Jayden. Cretton uses these small, seemingly insignificant focal points to show the audience that Grace is struggling to separate her personal life from that of her work life as the film progresses. Technically, it would seem implausible that a handheld camera could bring such emotion and depth to the film, but as seen in the scene where Marcus—a 17 year old about to age out of the facility—shows Mason—a counselor and Grace’s partner—his new rap—a devastating retelling of living with his mother who made him deal drugs for her—is definitely brought to life through the shaky, but nevertheless, relentless focus on Marcus’s face through its entirety. Even when Marcus has finished his soul jerking verse and the camera has panned out to show Mason as well, no words are spoken because they are unnecessary; everything that needs to be said is embodied by a silence and stillness that connects the audience to Marcus through the almost unimaginable possibility of having to live such a cruel life. It is this elementary way of filming in which Cretton brings to life a reality that most do not ever consider.
Even more conducive to achieving a realistic story about at risk kids are the characters themselves. Every character, from eccentric Sammy to the new counselor Nate who seems to be a little out of his element at Short Term 12, experience a slow but prominent character development that connects audiences to the storyline. This is most easily seen through Grace and Jayden. When Jayden arrives at Short Term 12 she behaves as most kids do when they are first sent to the facility. Rebellious and crude, Jayden fights to ignore the pull she feels to Grace. When Jayden tells grace her story about the octopus that gives up all her tentacles to a shark that is supposed to be her friend, audience members can see that Jayden has a much darker past than just that of a negligent family. Grace becomes obsessed with trying to help Jayden, going as far as following Jayden all the way to her father’s house one night when Jayden escapes, as well as throwing a lamp at her superior when he does not take Jayden’s story as a confession of what her father has done to her. Grace’s obsession with helping Jayden not only slowly deteriorates the walls between personal and work life, but sends her own dark past reeling as she sees a teenage girl struggle with the same thing she did as a child. It is through a shared tragedy that these two evolve into confidants, and it is through the acknowledgement of these woeful stories that the two can begin to move on. It seems to be that not only are the counselors teaching the kids, but the kids are leaving eternal marks on the counselors.
Short Term 12 is a whirlwind of emotions from heartbreak to victory; Cretton takes a problem that few can relate to and makes it relatable, almost devastatingly so. It is through this film that people can understand the importance of finding counselors with this type of unconditional love because everyone is worth saving and sometimes one can find peace and redemption in the most unsuspecting of places. With a mere handheld camera, director Destin David Cretton ensnares thousands of people across the country from various backgrounds and gives them a common ground, a reason to come together and build awareness for a new future.
Review written and submitted by Madison Deller.