Scratching and digging at one thumb nail with the other is the a nervous tick of Grace, played by Brie Larson, as she represses her own inner demons while trying to help teenagers only a few years her junior deal with theirs. Short Term 12 begins with a quirky story told by Mason (John Gallagher, Jr.) filled charm and intercut by lots of light hearted interruptions from his friends. It comes out of the gate as a darkly funny indie film.
It does not take long however before we learn that the humor is only a foil for some really heavy subject matter dealing with abuse, cutting, loss, and mental illness. The humorous moments, right through the ending, are essential to keeping the film afloat. More than that, it makes it infinitely watchable, even enjoyable, while not shying away in the slightest from the intense emotions just under the skin of all our characters.
Portraying Abuse Victims
After the movie premiere Larson was asked how much back story she needed to develop for Grace, and she simply replied “A lot.” When asked if she felt comfortable sharing any of that story, she say “No.” She acknowledges that playing a role where the character is so dense and dark is extremely taxing, and that it becomes necessary to find ways to become immersed, but also to let go at the end of it. The revelation throughout the movie is that Grace had been sexually abused as a child, and we learn some of the details slowly, then all at once, as she builds a connection with a new girl Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) who is in a similar situation. Grace is a survivor, but she has never really dealt with the trauma of her youth. Jayden is currently being abused, and she has real distain for Grace, not knowing that she has walked a mile in her shoes. Neither of them can trust anyone, neither of them can talk about it, neither of them can let anyone in.
Larson and Dever do a tremendous job portraying this very real attribute displayed by many sexual abuse victims. They are emotionally isolated from society. The Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape, following the Jerry Sandusky case, described it this way:
“In the words of Joe McGettigan, lead prosecutor in the Sandusky case, “Humiliation, shame and fear equal silence. These emotions cause that response.”
Offenders reinforce these feelings by the things they say and do to victims. They use the shame and fear to bind the victim to them and isolate them from others who might help them. The victim is left feeling alone, isolated and very different from everyone around them.
Victims describe this as a surreal feeling –to see other kids leading normal lives all around them, but feel so different and separate from them due to the abuse they have endured. This shame and silence can last for decades.”
That idea of isolated but not alone is on full display in Short Term 12 where kids and councilors are always occupying the same space and privacy is not only hard to get, but in some case explicitly not allowed.
It’s not simple
Something Short Term 12 does really well is give you a sense of how intense the emotions are and how crazy the daily lives of our characters can be, but it never loses the thread of the main story. The film steadily layers pressure onto Grace. This is represented by her constantly digging into her own thumb, and at the end of the second act she finally draws blood. Jayden confesses, albeit vaguely through a poem, that she is being abused. Despite Graces pleas to the doctors she is allowed to leave with her father and abuser.
There is a cathartic moment at the end where Grace, bubbling over with rage at the idea that this girl, trapped in the same hell she knew so well, could be saved and wasn’t. The most dramatic scene of the movie finds Grace standing over the sleeping body of Jayden’s father, baseball bat in hand, ready to brutally murder him in his bed. Is she about to help Jayden escape her present, or herself escape her past? It’s so well acted, you don’t know if she is having a complete emotional breakdown or a moment of clarity. As it turns out she is saved, but not through murder, though conversation.
Things people actually say
Jayden interrupts Grace before she can do anything she can’t come back from. They walk outside together and both come clean to each other, in horrific detail, what they have been through. They find connection at this moment that gives them strength. For Grace, it’s the strength to open up to Mason, and accept his proposal to marry her. For Jayden, it is the strength to confront her abuser and put an end to the terrors she has been enduring.
Movies can often lead us by the nose to make sure the clear message the author wants you to leave with is so crystalline that it couldn’t be missed even if you were scrolling through your newsfeed while watching. This can lead to forced and clunky writing. There is something very natural about the combination of writing and acting here that allows the stories of abuse, foster care, personal relationship, and friendship to all unfold over top of each other. Everyone can find a character to relate with, and to see the movie through. Even if you have never had any exposure to the variety of emotional and mental challenges experienced by most of the characters in the movie, there is Nate (Rami Melek) who is new to the unit and completely green. He is your avatar, observing and reacting as many would who don’t believe what they are seeing and hearing as real, that people could actually be this messed up. He learns to love and appreciate the kids and the situations they are in, as most viewers should by the end as well.
A must watch
This movie doesn’t glorify or denigrate abuse, victims, or the foster care system. It is both artistic and authentic. This is the first leading role for Brie Larson, and she completely nails it. Short Term 12 is a great small budget movie with a big important (though not heavy handed) message delivered through a great story and better acting, and is certainly worth you time. As of this posting, Short Term 12 is streaming on Netflix.
Movies That Matter is a regular feature on MovieSlant where we review a movie that makes important social commentaries and bring those themes out through an real world understanding of the issues at play.