When One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest was adapted in 1975, cynicism was at its peak. A de facto defeat in an unwanted Vietnam War was compounded by the resignation of Richard Nixon. Attitudes toward authority were skeptical, to say the least, and if you ask the more honest of those that lived through it, they might tell you it felt like the end of the world was nigh. No wonder the film magnifies the novel’s disdain for Nurse Ratched and maintains sympathies for the patients!
Today, the government is killing American citizens without due process, the NSA is spying on us, states are passing laws making it illegal to do something about rising sea levels, new reports on climate change suggest the end of the word actually is (relatively) nigh. Short Term 12, another film about patients in a mental ward, could easily take the same approach as Cuckoo’s Nest, and in a couple moments it does, but for the most part it turns its head toward much larger sociological problems that transcend politics. Destin Cretton’s look at a mental ward for children celebrates the patients, paints the workers as local, everyday heroes even while showing them through the eyes of patients, and instead points fingers at the irony of a “short term” facility—these problems don’t just go away when the kids turn 18 and leave—and the culture that has left the kids behind. There is no easy cure for an abusive childhood. Short Term 12 is emphatic in its insistence that problems cannot be fixed purely from a scientific, top-down structure; humanistic embraces and empathy are necessary ingredients in overcoming obstacles that are unimaginable to the rest of us.
At the beginning of the film, Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) tells a story to new employee, Dave (Rami Malek), about a kid who ran away from the facility but returned to tell the others about how Mason chased him until he soiled himself (yes, really). Later, we find out that he ran away again and was found dead soon after. Almost as quickly, we learn that some kids at the short term facility have been there for over three years because the authorities have forgotten about them. We are told early in the film that things don’t always work out, that not all endings are happy. What we see, then, is genuinely unique in the world the film builds for us.
Short Term 12 focuses mostly on Grace (Brie Larson) and her relationship with Mason and two of the facility’s residents, Marcus (Keith Stanfield) and Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever). Marcus, quiet but unpredictable, was forced by his mom to sell drugs and is on the verge of his 18th birthday, meaning he will soon be leaving. Jayden, on the other hand, is a rebellious newcomer. It’s not her first stay at a short term facility, but she thinks it will be a short-lived residency and expects to be living with her dad soon enough.
By far the most engaging parts of Short Term 12 are those that involve Marcus and Jayden. Exposition is low, and terms like “level drop” are revealed almost incidentally by details the camera glosses over (the TV, for example, can only be used by those who are “Green”). We learn about Grace not from what she says or others say about her, but because the only way she knows how to sympathize with and understand Jayden involves revealing details of her own past. The depictions of the kids are sympathetic and (mostly) reserved, and the larger interactions instill the picture with humor that stops the darkness from becoming bloated.
Less successful are the scenes that detail Grace’s relationship with Mason, which sticks fairly close to formula. Grace is secretive and won’t open up, Mason is kind and loving, and as we learn more about Grace, her unwillingness to talk becomes understandable, and things eventually settle themselves through a couple reveals. Also troubling is Dave’s place in the narrative; he seems to function purely for comic relief without adding any depth. Thankfully, the kids are usually at the forefront, with Jayden’s scenes outside the clinic granting the film freedom without bogging it down in the way that the relationship between Mason and Grace sometimes does. Equally notable is Brie Larson’s powerhouse performance, which fights off sappiness and combats bouts of unoriginality or lackluster dialogue.
Both Stanfield and Dever also provide great performances, granting Short Term 12 a sizeable power without needing to resort to sentimentality. Themes are never spelled out in dialogue, and revealing conversations always feel natural, not forced. Cretton’s script, combined with acting, grant Short Term 12 an unsentimental potency. One could argue that it rails a bit too hard against psychology—therapists are presented as the bad guys more than once—and there’s also a misplaced allusion to a friendship that allows for continued abuse that never amounts to anything, but a fairly tight focus on the relationship between the adult workers and the kids exposes scars and calls for sympathy, understanding, and humanism. Some facilities may be short term, but Short Term 12 shows how battles with the past don’t end when you walk out the doors or when you turn 18.