No offense to my colleagues at the Reader, but I think the happiest I've ever been at a job was when I worked as a direct-care provider at a day center for developmentally disabled adults. In fact, few episodes of my life have been as gratifying as teaching socialization skills to an autistic man with the intellectual capacity of a five-year-old or helping some of the charges with Down syndrome recognize new printed words. In these experiences, I felt I was making a demonstrable positive impact on other people's lives and that I was becoming more compassionate in the process. Most days I'd come home from work exhausted—the emotional strain of the job was so great that I felt as if I'd just run a marathon—yet there were times when I liked even this. I took satisfaction in knowing I'd pushed myself to the limit of my sympathy.
I'm being sentimental, of course. For every victory I experienced at work, there were countless diapers I had to change, tantrums I had to quell, and tedious forms I had to fill out to appease state-employed bureaucrats I never met. On top of all this, I made less than $10 an hour and I was always getting sick. (The developmentally disabled tend to have weak immune systems and pass germs around like crazy.) Even those victories could be perilous. Like many people in these sorts of jobs, I started to grow emotionally attached to some of the people I helped, which can be as problematic in the long run as neglect. I left the job after a year and a half, in yet another instance of a well-meaning young person quickly burning out on social work.
But I'll be forever grateful for the time I spent at that facility, if nothing else for its extraordinary atmosphere. The place was a constant storm of activity—rarely could you assist one person without having to keep an eye on several others, for you never knew who would wet her pants or try to run away. Everyone on staff tried to be as helpful as he or she could given the circumstances—and the circumstances could change drastically from one moment to the next. On good days I found this challenge exhilarating like nothing else I've known.
There are few movies that illustrate to my satisfaction the incredible vitality I encountered in social work. Of those, most are documentaries by Frederick Wiseman—Welfare (1975), Blind (1987), and Domestic Violence (2001) being a few favorites. When fiction films try to tackle the subject, they usually err on the side of being overly pious, downplaying work-related frustrations and excluding altogether those moments so bizarre that workers in the field learn to laugh at them in order to stay sane. (Just like kids, the undereducated, abused, and disabled can say the darnedest things.) Another common problem is that screenwriters privilege the experience of social workers and aides at the expense of the people they help—or vice versa—and the imbalance results in only a partial portrait of the subject at hand.
Short Term 12, an independent drama opening Friday, is so successful in its depiction of a social service agency that I can easily accept its shortcomings. Writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton (who expanded upon his 2008 short of the same name) once worked in a foster-care facility like the one in the film, and you can feel the influence of firsthand experience in the immediacy of the drama and specificity of detail. These qualities are evident from the very first sequence, in which a staffer, Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), gets interrupted in a story he's telling a new hire (Rami Malek) when an emotionally disturbed young resident tries to run away from the facility. Since workers aren't allowed to touch the foster kids once they're off-site, they need to chase him down and tackle him before he can escape. However serious the situation, it looks like a game of capture the flag. Once Mason gets the boy to the ground and says he needs to "de-escalate" his feelings, the kid (who can't be more than ten) shouts out the non sequitur "De-escalate my asshole, you deaf fucker!"
This moment, and many others like it in the film, achieve something rare and complex. Cretton and his remarkable young actors convey not only the challenge of caring for abandoned children with behavioral problems, but of caring for these children with these problems. By understanding the charges as individuals, we're able to sympathize with their issues, even laugh benignly at them. When another little boy, Luis, trash-talks an older charge during a game of Wiffle ball (the cheap, likely donated sports equipment is indicative of the movie's realism), we can smile at his native confidence though we know he's making trouble.
The foster-care facility is rife with dramatic tension even when things are going well. It's heartwarming to see abandoned kids in a safe refuge, surrounded by adults who want them to thrive. (The actors who play the line staff workers are uniformly young, handsome, and charismatic—a bit of cinematic idealization I don't especially mind, considering that the people who bust their asses at these jobs are underappreciated by society at large.) On the other hand, these kids never forget that they've been abandoned, and whatever stability they find at the facility can be disrupted at any moment. Cretton nails this feeling of uncertainty, rarely presenting a little triumph without following it with some sort of disaster, which can be anything from a tantrum to a suicide attempt.
Alas, the excessive tidiness of Cretton's screenplay seems to run counter to the realistic chaos he conveys in the facility scenes. (The remainder of this review contains spoilers, so you may want to see the movie before reading further.) Most of Short Term 12 takes place over a few days during which the line staff must handle two urgent situations. One charge, Marcus, is about to turn 18, and his increased behavioral problems reflect anxiety about what he'll do when he's forced out of the facility. It also becomes clear that new charge Jayden, who's 14, is being abused by her father, who still has partial custody of her. Both crises strike a chord with staff supervisor Grace (Brie Larson), who plays the role of mother hen with casual authority even though she's only in her mid-20s.
At first, Grace seems like the ideal line staff worker: affectionate, perceptive, and stern when she needs to be. The kids seem to regard her as the trustworthy big sister they've never had. Over the course of the movie, though, we realize that Grace relates so well to the charges because she was once a foster kid herself and still hasn't let go of the emotional baggage related to that experience. (In the film's most heavy-handed coincidence, we learn her adolescence was almost identical to the one Jayden now knows.) Short Term 12 recognizes that people can act selflessly for selfish reasons—and that some people even thrive in social work because of this. That Grace manages to resolve her inner conflict by the end of the movie feels implausible but not impossible. In any case, the movie has given us so many painful truths by this point that a bit of wish fulfillment feels good.
I suspect some viewers will balk at the sunniness of Grace's rehabilitation, which includes romantic fulfillment as well as psychological recovery. Mason and Grace have been a couple for three years when the movie starts; but though Mason seems to be a perfect boyfriend, Grace still refuses to share her innermost feelings with him. Some of their scenes together illustrate real love almost as effectively as the facility scenes dramatize social work. Their bond is not merely romantic—they seem to value each other's companionship and enjoy doing ordinary things together. In another twist, about two-thirds into Short Term 12, we learn that Mason was a foster kid too. (It's one of Cretton's more successful pieces of screenwriting shorthand, revealing volumes about his and Grace's relationship that would have taken up whole scenes' worth of dialogue.) The revelation comes when he takes Grace to the 30th-anniversary party of his foster parents, who have taken in dozens of kids over the years. The toast that Mason raises for his mom and dad is one of the movie's finest moments, articulating the hard-won compassion that social work nurtures in some of its charges and perpetuates through its greatest practitioners.