Blues Groove Film Reviews

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Short Term 12 - Destin Daniel Cretton - 2013
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SHORT TERM 12
Written and directed by Destin Daniel Cretton
Starring Brie Larson, Kaitlyn Dever, John Gallagher Jr., Frantz Turner, Stephanie Beatriz

SHORT TERM 12 brought back many memories of my ten months working in a RCL 12 (highest level of restriction is 14) group home for girls. Group homes “provide the most restrictive out-of-home placement option for children in foster care… with significant emotional or behavioral problems” (“Group Homes”). I was twenty-two years old – going to school for my Masters degree in Education – and I had the responsibilities of feeding, transporting, providing medication to, and counseling highly disturbed teenagers. Their case files were filled with details of severe abuse, drug addiction, abandonment, poverty, and mental illness. During my graveyard shifts, I was often perturbed by the nocturnal noises I heard and I always left work with great anxiety.

Destin Daniel Cretton captures many of my experiences in his film that is roughly cut and a bit vague in direction but has a whole lot of heart. It sheds light on the difficult work of those who care for foster youth and on the alienation of those who live in foster care.

The film begins with two group home counselors pinning down a prepubescent escapee who is screaming his head off. In most group homes, employees are trained to restrain out-of-control residents. Thank god, I never had to physically hold someone down, but the fact that I was trained to do so shows the extent of the job.

Brie Larson plays Grace, the director a co-ed group home. Her boyfriend, Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), also works there. They are both products of the foster care system, and soon discover that they will also be parents. At work, Grace knows exactly what she’s doing. She’s a confident woman who can manage the most chaotic of events. However, at home with Mason, she’s plagued by insecurities and doubts. Her pregnancy concerns her, most likely because she’s not sure if she would make a good mother after all that she’s seen in the world.



“You kind of have to be an asshole before you can be their friend” is the advice Grace gives a new employee named Nate. As inhuman as it sounds, the system’s priority is keeping kids safe. Considering their backgrounds, the most dangerous threat is often not external but internal.

At the group home where I worked, all closets and drawers were locked because you never knew if a resident was going to steal a pair of scissors to cut themselves, stab another resident, or stab you out of anger. You were constantly watching to see if a resident was on the verge of nervous breakdown, paranoid whether you left anything out in open by accident -- like that bottle of bleach after clean-up -- because she could pour it down her throat out of frustration. Doubts followed you throughout each shift. Did they thoroughly swallow their meds? Did I check the backpacks after they came back from school? Were the people who called on the approved list? Hardly any of my co-workers stayed at the job for more than a year.

When Jayden arrives at Grace’s group home, Grace’s self-assurance completely crumbles. The gloomy young girl reminds Grace of her teenage self. The protective walls that separate Grace's current life from her tumultuous past begin to fall as she gets to know Jayden. Being a product of the system herself, Grace begins to spiral out of control and is plagued by old feelings that haven’t surfaced for years. She becomes child-like at one point, regressing into the angry teenager that she once was.

Affection is important, but it can often have more of a negative effect than a positive one if you don’t know to provide it responsibly. You never want to get too close. Attachment often means that you are taking work home with you.

It’s hard not to make this line of employment personal, especially if you’ve been through it yourself. There were too many moments during my job that brought back memories of my own upsetting childhood. Anger, regret, and sadness would often flood the perimeters of my sanity. However, I had to get it together. We all have to grow up at some point.

But Cretton shows us that it’s not easy to give up these ghosts. The mere level of stress working in this type of environment can break a person, emotionally and physically.

While it provides shelter and protection, the system also doesn’t necessarily provide the mental support, the education, or the love needed to be a healthy human being. SHORT TERM 12 exposes a messy government-run operation that can hurt more than help. Bureaucracy often leaves those who need protection vulnerable to danger. It takes passionate people like Grace and Mason to fill in the void and do what is right rather than what is expected. In rare cases, breaking protocol can be better for the child than following it, providing nerve-wracking dilemmas for counselors. In Jayden’s case, Grace makes decisions to go around rules, risky moves that would have gotten me fired right away. It seems that Cretton takes artistic liberties with this particular storyline, which veers towards the unbelievable, but it demonstrates how disorienting this type of work can be.

Once, I had to put the entire house on lockdown after one of the residents had threatened me and the other residents. As she was destroying the house, my boss advised me to call the cops. It is an event that still haunts me today. The fourteen-year-old girl was eventually dragged away in handcuffs. The sad part is that I understood her rage (not to mention that being arrested is also an incredibly traumatizing experience). It came down to keeping everyone safe, including myself.

Let’s just say this work can really fuck with your head.

When I finally left the job, I felt aged and experienced in ways that forever changed me as a person. SHORT TERM 12 gave me a chance to reflect on my time as a group home employee and it hopefully shows others how excruciatingly hard it is to do this type of work.



Sources:
"Group Homes." Department of Social Services. CA.gov, n.d. Web. 25 July 2014.

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