Destin Daniel Cretton's film Short Term 12 (2013) brings to light a number of issues around kids in foster care. We've written here in the State of Opportunity blog about teens who are aging out of foster care and the challenges they face moving into adulthood with a tenuous support system. But, Short Term 12 does a great job of delving into the issues of trust, confidentiality, and uncertainty children face when removed from parental care and entrusted to other adults. Those adults may or may not be fully capable of caring for themselves, much less the needs of at-risk kids.
That's not a dig at caseworkers or others who work with kids in care. In fact, Brie Larson's portrayal of Grace, a twenty-something in charge of the kids, is full of maturity and love. However, it also emerges (non-spoiler) that Grace was also once in foster care, so she has a particularly deep investment in the kids she watches over. I'll leave it to you to see whether this investment is too much. Cretton manages to take us on a trip with Grace; the road it takes her down as she navigates both her past and her present in the challenging context of the child welfare system is a poignant one without being sentimental or overly harsh.
The kids who are in Grace's care inspire empathy, not sympathy. Gone is the plucky Little Orphan Annie of yesteryear. The way the characters are drawn seems true to how exasperating teens can be. But at the same time, the film reminds us through touching situations that they are, after all, still kids. They need help coping with their feelings and being dealt a pretty crappy hand in life.
The film opens, for example, with a skinny, red-headed kid, Sammy (Alex Calloway), sprinting from the care home. Sammy is howling, and in his tighty-whities, leads the counselors on a chase through the neighborhood. His sporadic "jailbreaks" are routine, but are later situated in his mental health issues in a way that's heartbreaking. Sammy isn't actually trying to go anywhere. He just wants out.
Short Term 12 has, notably, won a number of film awards. The film shows us a realistic depiction of the problems kids face when put into situations where they're expecting the adults around them to function like adults. Instead, they have to rely on a system outside their nuclear family to take care of them. Like Andrea Elliott's New York Times series, Invisible Child, Cretton manages to tell the story of the kids who live in foster care without losing focus on them.
Short Term 12 is out now on DVD, available for download, or ask for it at your public library.