SXSW 2013: ‘Short Term 12’ explores the humanizing struggles of triumph over trauma

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Short Term 12
Directed by Destin Cretton
Written by Destin Cretton
US, 2013

Trauma and abuse in a child’s formative years undoubtedly create ripple effects throughout their adult lives. Everyone talks about making choices, but what happens to those kids who are unfortunate enough to grow up in an environment where that choices are not a reality? Cretton’s Short Term 12 is a heart wrenching look at the lives of the children and their caretakers at a foster care facility as they both struggle with their own past demons.

The film follows Grace (Brie Larson), a staff member at the eponymous Short Term who is simultaneously trying to care for troubled kids, come to grips with her own past, and balance the sudden pregnancy with her boyfriend and coworker, Mason (John Gallagher Jr.). It is well to note that a lot of social workers tend to come from broken backgrounds. It’s the empathy that drives them to care for troubled children. This film is no different.

When Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) joins the facility, her familiar trauma affects Grace in ways unexpected and forces her to confront her own afflictions that have been weighing her down and her ability to be in a healthy relationship. It is through their mutual pain that they eventually come to grips with the past.


The film is incredibly authentic with the exploration of its characters and the broader themes of recovery without being overly sentimental or contrived. Everyone in the cast from the social workers to their wards such as the practically orphaned and abused yet talented Marcus (Keith Stanfield) or the subtly tragic Sammy (Alex Calloway). The film highlights their resilience but never idealizes it, opting for a much more honest and painful look at people who had little control over their own lives and what they are doing about it.

The direction for the film is very naturalistic and utilizes fantastic use of close-ups to pull every drip of emotion and pain the characters convey. This is kudos to Cretton’s direction. The cast and Cretton take writing that could easily be too saccharine or melodramatic but instead turn out brilliant performances about hurt and recovery in the face of the past, insecurities, and even the ethical system of bureaucratic social care. The film is a powerhouse of emotion and performances that will leave the audience a little more hopeful about the human spirit.


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