There is a look in the eyes of those who have seen the very worst that can happen. Those who no longer have the blessing of living in denial. Those who know, not just in their heads but in their souls, that the innocent can be hurt by those they trust, that their bodies, their hearts, and even their minds can be damaged in ways that leave them shattered, convinced that they will always be alone and outside the magic circle everyone else seems to know how to stay inside. Then there are those rare souls who have traveled all the way to the end of the road of no expectations but hold on to their sense of humanity by using what they have experienced to help others. The look in their eyes is tired, but not entirely closed off from the world. As T.S. Eliot said in “Ash Wednesday,” the goal must be “to care and not to care.”
The gifted actor Brie Larson captures that look in “Short Term 12,” a wise and heartfelt new film about the staff at a facility for abused, neglected, and damaged teenagers. It has the intimacy of a documentary so that the solid, assured narrative structure sneaks up on you. This assured feature from writer/director Destin Cretton shows that kind of understanding behind the camera as well.
Larson plays the aptly named Grace. She is not a therapist or a doctor. She has a more important credential, as we will learn. Her job is to help create a space that makes the kids who have no reason to trust anyone can feel safe, despite the drab institutional setting, the almost non-existent budget, the overworked professionals, and the rules that restrict them. How can you make someone feel safe when the state will throw them out with no support after 12 months or when they turn 18? How do you not give up when you see this kind of damage every day? Can you find yourself in helping others? Can you hide from yourself there?
Grace lives with her co-worker, Mason (“Newsroom’s” John Gallagher Jr., authentically disheveled), who loves her deeply but is troubled that she cannot truly open up to him. Remi Malek has the thankless role of the newbie who gives the other characters the chance to provide some exposition and show us that good intentions are not enough. But Cretton handles even this character with sympathy and humanity. Then there are the residents, including Marcus (Keith Stanfield), who is about to turn 18 and leave the only home he knows, and a new arrival, Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), who is furious and hostile.
Beautifully observed scenes open these characters up to us, with moments of small-g grace that are more heart-wrenching than the traumatic revelations. They seem to bloom on screen thanks to sensitive writing and gorgeously heartfelt performances. Birthday cards. An anniversary tribute. A look of resignation, recognition, and exhilaration as an emergency, but a relatively and reassuringly solvable one, comes up. A broken teenager begins to heal. And a broken adult begins to acknowledge that helping others cannot be enough unless she does what she asks from them, and what Cretton does before our eyes: to tell the truth.
Parents should know that this film includes very strong language, sexual references and situations, discussion of very severe parental abuse including sexual molestation, and frank discussion of family dysfunction and abuse
Family discussion: What do you learn about Mason from his family party? Why is the character named Grace?
If you like this, try: “Manic” and “The United States of Leland”