|Maui Film Festival poster|
Simply put, this is a tremendously moving film. It made me think, laugh, cry, and left me pondering the horrible damage done to some in childhood and how that damage impacts individuals for years and years to come — in ways both bad and good.
Short Term 12 is a wrenching look at life inside a juvenile therapeutic facility staffed by twenty-somethings Grace (winningly played by Brie Larson) and Mason (John Gallagher Jr — playing the boyfriend you ALWAYS wanted to have*) who are exactly right for their jobs. Close in age to their charges, they understand, relate, support, and yet hold firm to the structure the residential facility insists on to keep everyone safe.
New to the line staff of counselors is Nate, a real newbie who blunders in the usual egocentric ways of a collegiate do-gooder with little understanding or empathy for those he has come to assist. The team accepts his ineptitude and (to our vicarious relief) works with him to grow into his role.
At times, our earnest Grace chafes at the bureaucracy and when one newcomer's case story hits too close to home, Grace oversteps the boundaries and let's her protective maternal self burst out of line and leap to Jayden’s rescue with surprising results.
Different elements struck me throughout the film as we are drawn into the troubled worlds of each adolescent — Luis, Sammy, Jayden, and Marcus who is poised to age-out of the residence as he turns 18. Trying to avoid his impending release and desperately acting out, Marcus is soothingly settled by Mason who allows him to perform the rap he's written (overlooking the "cussing") that rips your heart out and leaves Mason speechless.
After coming to terms with his impending departure, Marcus asks to have his head shaved and — seeing no apparent downside — Grace and Mason oblige. As his tightly knit curls are shorn and his buzz-cut head is revealed, also revealed is the reason for this stripping away.
In the darkened theatre I had a visceral reaction to Marcus' wish. My daughter recently declared her intention to shave her head. At first, I could not fathom why anyone would choose to strip away a mane of lovely, long, wavy, beautiful hair but as she talked and educated me about her feelings — as well as issues related to femininity, hiding, emotional cleansing — I began to actually listen and hear why this was as important to her as it was to Marcus.
Like peeling back the layers of a large and bulbous onion, this film not only shows us an inner view of the kids and their issues, but slowly, painfully exposes why Mason and Grace are doing the jobs they are doing.
Air streaming past her face, dissolving her anxiety and anger in the wind — Grace manages her emotions by furiously biking through the night — and Short Term 12 glides us through the chaos of damaged psyches as this motley crew of adolescents and young adults struggles to overcome the past and move forward as a family.
*John Gallagher also plays another boyfriend you always wanted to have — Jim Harper on The Newsroom.