Hurt and Hope in ‘Short Term 12’

I avoided Short Term 12 for a long time because I thought it was going to be really hard to watch. It’s a 2013 indie film set in a group home for at-risk teens, and with a topic like that, I was expecting a tragic film about the pain, loneliness, and despair of being human. I had heard it was good though, so I finally psyched myself up and watched it.

[Warning: Spoilers for a 3-year-old movie within]

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Short Term 12 doesn’t shy away from the ways that humans can hurt each other. All of the characters in this film have suffered abandonment, neglect, sexual assault, physical abuse, or something else at the hands of people who should have been protecting them. In spite of this subject matter, it’s not a depressing movie, because instead of focusing on the ways that people hurt each other, it focuses on how they heal each other.

Grace (Brie Larson) is an experienced supervisor at a group home. She leads community meetings, breaks up fights, and tries to engage with the kids in her care. It’s a bit like a family, something that most of the residents don’t have a healthy experience with. They tell stories with each other, reminisce about good and bad times, pick fights, get on each other’s nerves, and know way too much about each other. Grace pours herself into the lives of the kids, making sure they feel safe and cared for. Her presence isn’t always welcomed, but she has good relationships with many of the kids, and helps them work through some of the painful events in their pasts. Then Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) enters the home.

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Jayden is surly, withdrawn, and endlessly sarcastic. She just wants to keep to herself, but Grace and Jayden have something in common that draws them together: they’ve both experienced incredibly painful abuse, and neither one wants to talk about it. They bottle it up, but the pain creeps out in different ways. Jayden refuses to connect, using her pain as a shell to hide in, and deflecting attention with anger and mockery. Grace uses her pain to help others, directing it into anger at the system, and working to prevent similar things from happening to others. While Grace’s method might appear more healthy, her pain still lurks inside her, ready to tear her carefully constructed life to pieces.

Spending time with Jayden stirs something inside of Grace. She puts her job, her relationship, even her own safety on the line in order to help Jayden. As she repeatedly demonstrates her commitment to Jayden, the younger girl begins to feel safe enough to trust her with the truth about her abuser, and eventually go to the police with his crimes. But it’s a two way street. Jayden’s victory gives Grace the courage to confront her own past. Grace has been suffering in silence for so long, unable to talk or even think about her past. With Jayden’s help, she is able to confront her pain and begin to heal. They help each other break through the walls that they’ve put up around their pain.

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This is a story about broken people, but it’s about broken people putting each other back together. Healing is complicated and difficult, and there are no easy fixes. It’s a process. What Short Term 12 gets right is that the first thing we need to start healing is someone to sit beside us, listen, understand, and love us unconditionally. That’s what Grace and Jayden do for each other, and it’s what people do for each other all throughout the movie. Healing is hard, but it’s the only way to move forward. Thankfully, as Grace would tell her residents, we don’t have to do it alone.

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