Short Term 12 had all the ingredients of a stereotypical movie about troubled youth. The young and slightly oddball staff cares for mostly minority teens in foster care who have experienced the worst that the world has to offer. The movie smelled of cliché rebellious moments curtailed by the love and concern of the staff members.
Then I had a taste of the scene with Marcus, a young Black man on the cusp of turning 18 who wants to celebrate his birthday by shaving his head. The haircut isn’t a passage into adulthood for him, but a way to relinquish the reminder of the beatings he suffered on his head as a child. Rubbing his fingers across his newly-faded, smoothly-shaped head, he begins to cry. None of the bruises are there. And with each tear, the mental bruises begin to wash away.
With subtle detail, layered character development and realistic depictions, this movie successfully portrays the nuanced experiences of many youth in the foster care system. I watched believing I was learning about the lives of real people instead of characters. They were so familiar. And authentic. And layered.
Short Term 12 weaved together effortlessly issues of unemployment, repeat trauma, and transition from foster care; all chronic issues of the system. Yet its biggest triumph was portraying those difficulties in a way that didn’t make the youth seem powerless and fragile. Often movies show “broken” children of the system. Yet for two hours, the film sensitively depicted the humanity of trauma and struggle, and the relationship between power and empowerment.
Grace, the main character of the movie, is the perfect example of this relationship. She pivots from feeling powerless after the news of her abuser being freed, to empowering herself by helping another girl speak up against abuse.
Bravo to the creators of this film. Hopefully it will be a lens through which people can see scenes of a troubled foster care system, and the humanity of young people advocating for better futures for themselves.
Ryann Blackshere is a reporter for the Chronicle of Social Change.