Netflix Suggested Viewing
As I passed my roommate and his friend in the hallway-
Roommate: “Hey, man. Did you just wake up?”
Me: “No, I’ve just been crying.”
This pretty much sums up my experience with Short Term 12, the debut film from writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton and I don’t mean this in a negative way. It did not transform me into Hamlet’s ghostly father, wandering the world in despair. Although anyone familiar this blog and its contents should be aware, I have no problem wearing my emotions on my sleeve but, generally speaking, I’ll confine it to the moment and channel them in a positive way and with a different film I may have answered, yes, I’m a bit sleepy. But not here, all there was to do is throw up my hands and blubber. To emphasize, not all the emotions this film evokes are negative but when you can relate to the orphans or the outcasts or the abused there is a common sort of language that may not get through to viewers who might have had more traditional upbringings. This is not to lessen anyone else’s life experiences or play the Who Had It Worse game but there are degrees, there are certain types of trauma that, when encountered at a certain age, inform an entirely unique emotional vocabulary. To specify, love, community, and the idea of family, hurt. There are moments in Short Term 12 where these damaged young people react to positivity and affection with violent irrationality but, because of the quality of the story and the acting, it’s all simply the truth. Anyone who has come in from the cold, the kind that numbs and saps the blood from extremities knows that even lukewarm water feels like agony; the same is true of the heart. The contrast can be unbearable, the light too bright to dark adapted eyes.
A lot of the kids in this story have gone through the worst of the worst and I don’t want to imply empathy, only sympathy, only a shorthand understanding. What’s really lovely about this film is that while it definitely has leads and supporting characters no one is really saving anyone else, they are all simply enduring at the ragged edge. They are holding hands, marking time until the world visits legal accountability on their entirely unprepared souls. A lot can be said for the ‘underprivileged’ and their ability to fight for a home despite the circumstances, a home that will undoubtedly come unraveled for one reason or another, often as a result of that vocabulary. The one that defines the word as a broken painful place. But being part of that transient home, with an artificial family, is a special feeling. One that is hard to describe to anyone who grew up in a more traditional environment.
Brie Larson and John Gallagher Jr. are at the core of the story and they are beyond capable, both characters are well written and well rounded. Both have compelling reasons to be where they are. And the supporting cast of non-professional actors ground what could have been a pedantic sob story, with special mention to Keith Stanfield as Marcus. His gravity and depth I equate to Quvenzhané Wallis in the incredible Beasts of the Southern Wild. So powerful is his performance that I had little interest in his backstory; he communicates it so perfectly in his poise and mannerisms that when he does (brilliantly) share it I paused and made the aforementioned trip down the hallway, only to encounter my roommate, to whom I cried out “Mark Me! My hour is almost come.”
What is really remarkable about this story is that it isn’t that fictional. These kids do exist and so do the others, the ones that survive, grow up, and find their way back. People who have every right to move on with their lives but choose to dedicate themselves to finding and helping others like them, and that gives me hope. I too often want to go running and screaming into the night with the futility of it all. So when I see a film that shows the volunteers and the caregivers in a stark humanizing light, I am awed and humbled at my selfish little life. And it’s a nice feeling realizing that I know heroes, friends that I’ve grown up with who do this kind of work. Who choose to carry the weight of another, for as long as it takes.
The trouble with Short Term 12 is recommending it. Is it perfect? No. Is it exceptional and beautiful? Yes, emphatically. Will it change your perspective? I do not know the answer to that. This is like recommending a documentary about the genocide in Sudan or some horror story about corporate malfeasance, it’s hard to share. But I do. I recommend it, wholeheartedly. It’s troubling knowing there are broken people wandering the fringes of their communities, peaking in windows during dinner, weeping through the holidays, curiously starting new relationships in the hope of finding someone capable of overcoming their scars. All the while internally at war with the idea that they are, in fact, scars and not wounds.