PTSD in Film: Short Term 12

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The very last line of Destin Daniel Cretton’s Short Term 12 comes as serial-runner Sammy tries, for the hundredth time, to escape the group home for troubled teenagers. As Grace and her co-workers’ conversation is interrupted, she announces with a glint in her eye, ‘Here we go,’ and, somewhat unsurprisingly, off they go.

As a last line, it does a pretty decent job of summing up the last 96 minutes, and perhaps even more so in terms of its major characters. Central character Grace (Brie Larson) is a young supervisor of the Short Term 12 home, alongside her co-worker and boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), and newbie Nate (Rami Malek), who, whilst looking out for the various kids from various backgrounds, has a traumatic past behind her too. In meeting teenage newcomer Jaden (Kaitlyn Dever), whose current struggles parallel her own background, she’s forced to face the effects of her past, something she’s found a hell of a lot easier to ignore up until now. ‘Here we go,’ she says, as if knowing what she’s about to embark on.

Carrying the weight of her father’s abuse, Grace demonstrates something reminiscent of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. But significantly, whilst Short Term 12 charts her exploration of the effects her father left her to, they don’t come close to acting as wholehearted definitions. There’s no exaggeration in the portrayal of Grace; she’s grappling with a damaged past, but her life isn’t her affliction. Which is something really important to consider with PTSD, and something Short Term 12’s script must be commended for. Likewise, there are no secondary characters who aren’t sufficiently fleshed out, there are no means of exploiting PTSD or other mental illnesses to act only as a mirror for the investigation of the protagonist. They are all given sufficient depth, and sufficient space to explore themselves, for themselves.

At about the third-way-mark, in a small bid for their wellbeing, Mason says to Grace ‘Please, you have to let me into your head once in a while’. It’s a small, kind of minute moment of tenderness, but one that is by no means any less important than those other wild moments of hot anger and tears streaming down cheeks. It’s a lack of understanding that grows in ferocity throughout the film, and parallels Grace’s inability to fully comprehend Mason’s motives for being and staying present. ‘Why are you so nice to me?’ she says quietly. Short Term 12, potentially more than anything else, shows and, more importantly, accepts that love doesn’t equate to understanding. But it, in various forms, can do a hell of a lot to support.

In depicting both the trauma of adults and of children, and the countless ways it can manifest itself, whether that’s involuntarily slapping away a consensual sexual encounter, the overwhelming urge to self-harm, or purposely isolating yourself from others in bid to protect you both, Short Term 12 elevates itself into a quiet optimism that accurately, yet sensitively, revels in its portrayal of PTSD. Too often, mental health is sucked into a vacuum of quirky relevance and Hollywood razzle-dazzle, something new and fresh to make it stand-out from the crowd (ahem, I’m looking at you Silver Linings Playbook), but Short Term 12 should be commended for its brutally honest effort. Yep, here we go…

Short Term 12 (2013), directed by Destin Cretton, is distributed by Verve Pictures. Certificate 15.

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Third year Film and English student living in D.C., self-proclaimed go-to Edge expert on Cloverfield, Fall Out Boy, and Jake Gyllenhaal. Loves mostly those three things.

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