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Child abuse, whether physical, mental or emotional, is an insidious evil, a cancer that takes root in an individual and manifests itself for generations to come. There can be no greater horror for a defenseless young person than to be preyed upon and victimized by the very people that are supposed to protect them, those parents and guardians who function as wolves among the flock. When one’s trust and faith has been shattered in such a terrible, fundamental way, is it ever possible to fully trust another human being, much less an adult in a position of authority? What of those abused individuals who dedicate their lives to helping others in similar situations? When you have been so terribly fractured and marginalized yourself, what happens when someone else needs to rely on you? What if, in the end, you only have enough strength for one person: do you save yourself, as you’ve always done, or do you give everything to the other, losing yourself completely in the process?

Writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton’s Short Term 12 (based on his earlier short film) is an open wound, a raw nerve love-letter to those people who devote their lives to helping troubled youth, even when the victories seem slight and the struggles nearly impossible. It’s an amazing film, the kind of movie that builds in subtle ways until you’re almost flattened by the raw emotion on display. It’s a familiar story, this examination of screwed-kids trying to make sense of themselves and the terrifying world around them, but it’s a necessary story, the kind that we should keep watching until we finally get it. Most importantly, Short Term 12 is an honest, powerful film filled with the kind of scorched-earth performances that will resonate long after the final credits have rolled: it’s a gut-punch, in the best possible way, and completely unforgettable.

We begin with a bit of a regular occurrence in this particular group home: an escape attempt by the ridiculously energetic Sammy (Alex Calloway). As Sammy runs gleefully for the hills, he’s chased down by two of the counselors, Grace (Brie Larson) and Mason (John Gallagher Jr.). We then meet the other counselors, a wet-behind-the-ears newbie named Nate (Rami Malek) and Jessica (Stephanie Beatriz). These four, along with the head of the facility, Jack (Frantz Turner), are all that stands between their various charges and a very big, bad world.

We also meet the kids, with special attention paid to the withdrawn, surly Marcus (Keith Stanfield) and sarcastic trouble-maker Luis (Kevin Hernandez). Marcus, an aspiring rapper, has been physically abused for so long that he’s become completely nihilistic: when asked if he wants a party for his upcoming 18th birthday, he replies that he just wants to get his head shaved. Marcus has seen the bad side of life for so long that it’s all he knows: he trudges through his days with the weariness of someone four times his age. The scene where he demos his new song for Mason, spitting out spare, harsh lines while Mason keeps time with skeletal beats on a bongo-drum, is a show stopper. The scene is so painful, so blazingly honest, that it’s almost impossible to watch: it’s like a child asking for spelling advise on a suicide note.

Into this situation falls Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), the troubled daughter of one of Jack’s best friends. Jack describes his friend as a good, attentive father but Grace has her doubts: after all, if he’s so great, why’s Jayden coming to stay with them? As promised, Jayden is surly, unpleasant, unfriendly and confrontational: she doesn’t do “short-term” relationships and she won’t be here long enough to matter, so who cares? Jayden is also a cutter, with the scars to prove it, and instigates a minor shit-storm when she becomes upset and locks herself in her room. For all intents and purposes, Jayden is already unreachable, a young lady so damaged by whatever has happened to her that she views herself as a lost cause: in other words, she reminds Grace of herself.

You see, Grace, like Mason (and possible Jessica and Nate, although we’re never told), is the product of a fractured childhood. In Grace’s case, it was an abusive father who’s spent the past 10 years in prison for terrible crimes against her. She’s buried herself in the good she does with the children but she’s a tortured, unhappy person, given to long periods of simply sitting in the shower, letting the steaming water beat on her head. She’s also pregnant with Mason’s baby: he’s delighted, seeing a chance to start the family that he never had. Grace, on the other hand, is a bit more conflicted. She still has a tendency in punch Mason in the face when they get intimate, after all, and there’s always the nagging notion that she, herself, is “damaged goods.” When she can’t “fix” herself, what right does she have to bring a child into the world?

As things with Marcus and Luis come to a head at the facility, Grace finds herself more and more attached to Jayden. She seems to feel that making a difference in this one instance, to this one person, will make a difference to everyone…to herself. Grace’s actions put her relationship with Mason in danger, as well as her job with the facility. One of the first rules, after all, is that you never chase the kids once they’ve left the property: once they’re off the grounds, they’re no longer the responsibility of the group or the individual counselors. Grace, of course, knows that’s a load of bullshit: when you honestly care, you’ll chase them right to hell and back. And so, Grace descends into Hell to bring back Jayden…and see if she can’t save herself, while she’s at it.

In all honesty, there’s very little (if anything) bad that I have to say about Short Term 12: it’s a miraculous film, the kind of movie that requires that you sit and process what you’ve seen after the credits roll. It’s a powerful film, sometimes surprisingly so: I wasn’t ready for the way that some scenes moved me, perhaps due to my own experiences, and there are certain scenes that are painfully cathartic. As a child, I grew up a short distance from a troubled youth group home, a truly nightmarish facility where the children were physically abused for years. The place was eventually shut down (perhaps because a town can only sit on a dirty secret for so long, no matter what the secret) but the damage would have been done long before that. I was close friends with many of the kids who lived at the home and I “recognized” them in the movie: shy, introverted youth, prone to explosive violence but just as likely to be impossibly sweet. I saw their scars, during gym class, and they looked a lot like the scars on the kids in Short Term 12. This movie felt utterly and completely real and honest to me, a few degrees removed from a documentary, in some instances.

The subject matter, alone, would make Short Term 12 a powerful film but that wouldn’t necessarily make it an amazing film. Any film about child abuse walks a perilous line: on the one hand, an overly-sentimental film can come across as mawkish, manipulative and contrived, even if the intentions are good; on the other hand, a film that traffics in overly fantastic ideas of retribution or revenge (something like Princess (2006) or Dark Touch (2013) comes to mind) tends to marginalize the very real suffering that abused children endure. Revenge-oriented child abuse films always strike me as being close cousins to rape-revenge films: the terrible reality of something like child abuse or rape is reframed as a plot device.

Short Term 12 is not a sentimental film, although it does have a tremendous amount of compassion for its characters. This is a film where the characters, particularly Grace and Marcus, are allowed to “act out,” to express their anger and pain in ways that they feel is appropriate, whether anyone else does or not. Short Term 12, in many ways, is about being able to own your pain, to make it about survival versus victimization. By the time the film has come around to its conclusion, no one is “fixed,” even if they are happier. Indeed, the phenomenal final scene tells us nothing if not that life will continue to be like this, full of pain and sorrow and rage and small pockets of joy, until the day we all cease drawing breath. There is no such thing as a “happy ending,” because the story is still being written until the day you die: there is only “one day at a time.”

At the center of the film, towering above all else from a great height, is the staggering performance of Brie Larson. I’ll be honest: I never really paid attention to her before, even though I vaguely recall her from The United States of Tara…I didn’t even remember that she was in Don Jon (2013) and I just saw that a few weeks ago. Her performance in Short Term 12, however, is nothing short of relevatory and is one of the finest performances I saw this year. If Kaitlyn Dever is less impressive as Jayden, it’s probably because much of her time is given over to being the stereotypically moody “goth” teen: her character development is more subtle and spread across a wider space. We spend the entire film with Larson, however, and we can see her growing even within the first five minutes of the film. I really can’t laud her performance enough: she’s subtle, conflicted, funny, sad, selfish, selfless and, above all, highly human. Grace is easily the focal point of the film and Larson is such an effortless talent that it was a pleasure to make the journey with her, even when the emotion became searingly honest and painful.

While there’s not a bad actor in the bunch (John Gallagher Jr’s Mason has to be one of my favorite characters in quite some time and his “pants shitting” story is a minor classic), special mention must be made of both Keith Stanfield, as Marcus, and Rami Malek, as Nate. Stanfield is an impossibly magnetic presence as the seriously messed-up Marcus, taking a role that could have played as “stereotypical tough guy softens up” and making it completely organic. He brings an offhanded sense of menace to some of his lines (and actions) that serve as a subtle but omnipresent reminder: these may be kids but they’re capable of some pretty adult things. Malek, by contrast, gets the rather thankless role of the clueless newbie and makes it something both endearing and suitably exasperated. If Mason and Grace represent the people who are “all-in” when helping troubled youth, then Nate is the person who probably represents how most people act/are: eager to do good but clumsy, nervous and laden with their own issues/expectations. Nate is a supremely nice guy but he’s ridiculously self-absorbed: in one key scene, as Jessica and Nate comfort Luis after Marcus hits him, Jessica asks if “he’s alright.” Nate immediately responds that he’s fine but shaken, blah blah blah until Jessica cuts him off with the cold reply that she was talking to Luis. Nate means well but he’s too tied up in the formal process, as many of us are, to actually make a connection with the kids. Grace and Mason follow the rules of the group home to the letter…until they don’t. With Nate, you get the idea that he would never bend the rules, regardless of the situation.

Ultimately, Short Term 12 is not only an exquisitely crafted, masterfully acted, intelligent and powerful film, but it’s also an important film…if I may say so, it’s a completely necessary film, especially in our day and age. There’s nothing “feel-good” about Short Term 12, although the ending will probably make your heart soar. There are no easy answers here, either: sometimes, love is all you need…sometimes, it’s just not enough. Sometimes, broken people can make themselves whole…or at least whole enough to function. Sometimes, they can’t. In the real world, there are no easy answers and previous few “happily ever afters”: there’s a reason those were called fairy tales, after all.

If you’ve ever known someone (or been someone) who’s gone through this, I would wager that Short Term 12 will completely knock you on your ass. In an era when filmmaking seems more enslaved to escapism than ever, it’s sometimes helpful to remember that there are other colors in the cinematic crayon box. There are times when Short Term 12 will make you feel very bad. There are times when it will put a smile on even the sourest face. There will be times when you curse humanity and times when you realize that, for better or worse, we’re all that we’ve got.

At the end of the day, it breaks my heart to think about how many real-life Marcuses and Jaydens there are out there. It gives me hope to realize, however, that the world is full of Graces, too.