17 February 2016

Film Review: Short Term 12

Essential Prerequisites(written for Treatment of Trauma and Abuse course)
Short Term 12 is a 2013 film written and directed by Destin Daniel Cretton based on his experience working at an inpatient facility for teenagers. The film turned out to be a near-perfect match with our course readings in its demonstration of diverse abuse symptoms and healing strategies.

Short Term 12 depicts no perpetrator actions, only the symptoms left by them. This avoids the far-too-commonplace sensationalism, and limits the triggering of traumatic memories among viewers. The principal characters are working through their individual abuse in parallel—symbiotically, off of each other’s backs. “Short Term 12” is the name of the facility, which, as is explained near the beginning, is designed to take young people for stays of no more than a year, but has in fact been hosting some for three years. In this institutional society there are three tiers: the patients, the residential staff, and a top one consisting of therapists, case workers, and supervision. Featured in the film are the residential staff—being in their early 20s and only a few years older than the residents—headed by Grace. The residential staff, we hear mentioned more than once, are there “to keep kids safe, not to be their therapists.” We come to learn, as events unfold, that Grace was abused by her father—who is serving a 10-year prison sentence, incurred, it is implied, due to heinous acts toward his daughter.

More than one event has conspired to bring Grace’s untreated abuse to a head: she learns she is pregnant, her boyfriend has just proposed marriage to her, she is seeking to save a new resident whose story is unsettlingly close to her own, and her father is about to be released to society. Grace is overwhelmed by the feeling she is incapable of handling any of these rites of passage. We see her scheduling an abortion impulsively upon receiving her pregnancy test results, interrupting the clinician who seeks to present all available options. Her ambivalence about this decision is made apparent when she withholds telling her partner at first, yet later—when she does choose to inform him—announces “We’re going to have a baby.” Yet she has still not canceled the abortion appointment, which comes out when she comes unraveled a few days later and affronts her bewildered partner declaring, “I can’t marry you or have a baby.” The unpredictable periodicity of her flashbacks is demonstrated in a scene where she invites her partner into love-making but suddenly punches him in the nose as he nears her genital area. From the trepidation with which he approached this moment (“Are you sure you want to do this?) we gather this is not the first injury he has sustained at her hand. Clearly there have been occasions she did not get similarly triggered, or she would not have became pregnant.

Nearing her fifteenth birthday, Jayden arrives at the facility, stating that—because she will only be there a short time before going live with her father—she has no intention of getting close to anyone. But Grace comes to suspect that Jayden is keeping secret abuse at the hands of that same father—and adopts the younger girl devotedly. Grace cuts through Jayden’s defenses by sitting and drawing with her, accompanying Jayden when the latter goes AWOL, and by building closeness through self-disclosure. Grace’s abuse involved beatings and sexual abuse (“He forced me into the shower with him”), but we are led to believe it went further than is spoken in the dialogue. Jayden is visibly affected at seeing that her history of cutting is shared by Grace.

One night as Grace is bidding Jayden goodnight—the former frustrated by the latter’s continued withholding—Jayden calls her back: “Do you want to hear a children’s story I wrote?” Her we are offered an abstraction of abuse perhaps more powerful than any live witnessing of it. Jayden has drawn a lonely octopus excited to have a new friend in a shark. The shark says he is hungry and asks if the octopus would agree for him to eat one of her legs. As she has never had a friend before, she assumes this is the sort of sacrifice one must make to have a friend. She allows this, and they return to playing and swimming together. Before long, the shark makes the same request. The octopus continues to acquiesce in this pattern until all her legs are eaten; and the shark, lamenting that she can no longer play and swim with him, leaves in search of a new friend. Here we see the therapeutic power in drawing and story-telling in this innocent, yet disturbing, illustration.

Grace is stirred. But when she returns to see Jayden the next day, she is informed that the latter was taken for a visit by her father. Grace storms to her boss, insisting that Jayden is not safe and must be rescued. The boss maintains that until a certifiable allegation is made, it is not the agency’s business what goes on between Jayden and her father. “She was telling us in the only way she knew how!” Grace howls, growing distraught enough to destroy her boss’ favorite lamp and bicycle to Jayden’s father’s home. Although Jayden has just been beaten by her father and the father lies sleeping in front of the TV, she dissuades Grace from bashing in his head with a baseball bat—a crime of passion for which Grace has worked herself up. Jayden improvises a cathartic exercise for both traumatized women, inviting Grace to use the bat with her on the windows of the father’s sports car. As they ride back together on the bicycle, Jayden’s arms wrapped around Grace’s waist as the latter pedals, viewers get the sense that they both are now on the road to recovery. Jayden’s pronouncement to Grace, “You would make a great mother,” carries more authenticity to the latter than a similar statement would coming from anyone else. Viewers understand in that moment that the decision has been made to keep the baby—ecstatically accentuated in the subsequent ultra-sound scene.

Grace also shares with Jayden an unwillingness to discuss her own abuse. They end this pact of silence simultaneously. We get to see Jayden telling her story directly to Grace’s boss. And for the first time, we see Grace with her therapist, who poses the question that we sense has been proffered to no avail in previous sessions, “Your father is getting out soon. Would you like to look at your feelings about that?” We, the viewers, do not need to see her discuss those feelings because we have been seeing them acted on throughout the drama. This is why the scene can end satisfactorily with her merely responding, “yes.”

The healing of other patients takes place through sub-plots in Short Term 12. Marcus is about to turn 18 and be transitioned to the world outside, bringing up his fears and anxieties. He asks Grace to “shave my head.” (As she does this with an electric hair-clipper, it does not turn out “shaved” precisely). He then examines his head for scars or indentations he expected to find, which he had obscured with longer hair. We are not offered the back story, but are nonetheless moved by the tears that come when he can find no physical traces of past abuse. He is saying goodbye not only to his home of three years, but to his self-concept of brokenness. In spite of being rescued by Grace a short time later in a suicide attempt, we hear in the final scene that Marcus has started college and hooked up with a former Short Term 12 patient he had been fantasizing about since her departure years before. Marcus’ conflicting death-wish and passion for life evidence a young black male wrestling with the demons of abuse. He also offers raps at various points. The actor playing Marcus, Keith Stanfield, is credited with the professionally-produced rap song that accompanies the credits.
The youngest resident, Sammy, who has periodically attempted to flee screaming, appears to be doing so again in the final scene. Only this time, rather than make for the gate, he leads his pursuers in circles around the lawn—his playful way of signaling a developing awareness of being loved. We are led to presume that Mason, Grace’s partner in love and work, is no stranger to abuse by the scene in which he toasts his foster parents, at their thirtieth wedding anniversary, for their redemptive role in his life.

Short Term 12 is a rather nondescript title for a beautifully crafted drama which picks up where abuse leaves off, postulating strategies for becoming free from its debilitating effects. On the the continuum of healing, the film places talk therapy on the far side of non-verbal interventions—which prove to be its essential prerequisites.