Suffer the little children
Destin Daniel Cretton's Short Term 12 starts with a story about shit: an anecdote about a staff member chasing an AWOL youth who, thanks to the influence of heat, fear (the resident--easily twice his size--has threatened him), and time (outside of the facility he has no choice but to follow the runner and talk him into coming back, for hours if necessary (must be some bizarre California regulation)) ultimately defecates in his pants. Said youth comes back, just for the privilege of telling all the other fellow residents how the staff member had soiled his jeans.
Which is what I mostly miss in this picture: the sight, scent and feel of feces being excreted down bowls, squirted in the air like a cologne, flung about in angry handfuls. Feces wrapped in underwear and hidden in clothing bins, shoved in your face during a restraint, molded into cute little doll figures and arranged in a semicircle, sometimes found smeared everywhere in the toilet stall but the bowl--I'm talking a lot of bull, enough to give a picture an "R" rating. Beyond that, and beyond an all-day session of vomiting thanks to intestinal flu (a trash can lined with biohazard plastic takes care of that) and the occasional nosebleed (pinch the bridge of the nose, icepack to the back of the head), I'd say Cretton pretty much captures the sights, sounds, smells and textures of a residency for at-risk youths.
It's actually startling and not a little unsettling. From the moment the red-headed Sammy (Alex Calloway) runs screaming out the alarmed door (these places are not prisons, and are legally prohibited from locking their doors to prevent escapes), I kept hearing lines said to me, or which I've said myself: "You have to kinda be an asshole before you can be their friend," someone tells Nate, the nervous new staff (Rami Malek). Nate's panic is understandable: this is a new world to him, with egos like fragile eggshells you handle with caution, couched inside kids over six and a half feet tall and two hundred and fifty pounds who can turn on you in an instant, for no reason at all. After my first year and third restraint I bought some dumbbells and started doing arm curls--wasn't much, but it gave me a fighting chance.
I seem to know many of these kids, or at least remember working with them at one point or another: Sammy, who when he's not running sits in a corner, a near catatonic; Marcus (Keith Stanfield) the 18-year-old terrified of going home; Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) the chronic self-cutter; Luis (Kevin Hernandez) the irrepressible smart aleck. Part of Cretton's achievement is in realizing these types on the big screen without reducing them irrevocably into cliches (he's helped by a cast of wonderfully fresh-faced young actors); part is in acknowledging that staff don't work in a vacuum--they're affected by the kids (by their plight and abuse, both), and carry their own traumas into work. Never mind that official policy forbids it ("Be professional!" "Leave your baggage at the door!"), you can't not be affected by what you see, what you bring away with you, what's done to you inside the facility--inside yourself.
Mason (John Gallagher, Jr.) I related to the most: the laid-back veteran with the repertoire of stories and offbeat humor. I can even empathize with his love for a traumatized woman (don't need to work in a group home to find that kind of relationship), patiently waiting for her to get over it, not realizing (or not being able to accept) that perhaps she never will. Even the lovemaking sequence (where she aggressively comes on to him, then just as aggressively turns on him) is hilariously familiar ground--sadly so: what can you say or do to make a girl trust you when it's your very sex that she both desires and fears? And--here's a disturbing thought--do you deserve her trust in the first place? It's the perfect lose-lose proposition: the less you know, the less you're able to respond to her moods; the more you know, the sooner you realize how hopeless your situation is.
Brie Larson is excellent as Grace, the film's protagonist, a supervisor who was herself a victim of abuse. Might be my unfamiliarity with California law, but my kneejerk reaction on learning she's also a victim (a former resident?) was uneasiness: yes, she can relate to the kids, but professional distance will be a constant challenge to maintain (is at one point definitely lost), early burnout a near certainty. Hard to believe (with her level of self-involvement) that she lasts long enough to rise to the position of supervisor--but then, again, perhaps they do things differently in that state.
Too bad Cretton felt the need to impose narrative shape on the material--when the film is content to introduce you to this half-nightmare, half-safehaven world, it's very fine; when it starts to home in on Grace's increasing involvement in Jayden's predicament the picture loses its carefully cultivated realism. That's disappointing, not to mention frustrating--never expected to see my working life depicted with such vibrant energy on the big screen, then have it all turn into a social worker's soap. It's little like opening up to a new acquaintance who is spookily in your head, then realizing she's a political conservative--you feel badly betrayed.
It doesn't help that Cretton isn't quite there with his handling of the camera. This is raw, intense, intimate stuff; shoving the lens up close and tremulous doesn't help--might in fact put off those of us who dislike blatant emotional manipulation. Doesn't help that some of the crucial plot twists come off so false--can't believe Jack, her boss (the otherwise excellent Franz Turner), would let a resident return to an abusive home when one of his staff has recommended otherwise, no matter how good a friend the parent is;* also can't believe none of the residents show much sexual interest in each other or in the staff, or that 'grooming' is apparently nonexistent (it's a problem, believe me).
*Think about it: Jack could catch heat from the dad for denying him access to his daughter, but he could always wave Grace's report in the man's face, and it would give him time to dig into the report, see how much truth there is in it. If she's wrong he can let Jayden go, apologize to the dad, maybe penalize or even fire Grace with cause; if she's right he can get the credit for preventing a bad situation. Sometimes the bureaucrat's tendency to do nothing in the face of a crisis situation is the smartest thing to do after all...
Still, half a good film's better than none; one I totally identified with (at least the first forty or so minutes)--that's practically a miracle. Makes me want to knot an American flag round my neck and run, shrieking, out the door.
First published in Businessworld, 5.22.14