I recently attended a screening of Short Term 12, a wonderful movie about a foster care facility for at-risk teenagers in Los Angeles, told through the eyes of a twentysomething mental health director, Grace. It was inspired by the real experience of the writer-director, Destin Daniel Cretton, who worked in the foster-care system, and it shows in its insight into the struggles of both the residents and the staff.
It's an affectionate, thoughtful look at the challenges of being these wounded, complicated kids, as well as the challenges of helping them, of reading their behavior and responding effectively. It's an emotional film but not a sad one, because it's really about resilience, and the healing power of being open about painful experiences and the feelings they generate.
The kids who come to live at Short Term 12 have been abused or neglected, but they're not sensationalized or stereotyped. Right in the opening sequence the tone is set when a young resident comes screaming out the front door, heading for the gate, beyond which the staff is legally not allowed to touch him. Grace and her coworker (and live-in boyfriend) Mason swiftly and gracefully intersect the boy, who's shouting obscenities but also clearly relieved to be caught, and ready to "de-escalate," as Mason puts it, inviting him to come back on the unit and take a nap. They react with insight born of seeing plenty of kids act out, and not being either impressed or frightened by the behavior.
The plot of Short Term 12 is as much about Grace and Mason as it is about the kids. There's a marvelous scene in which we discover that Mason was raised by foster parents, and he has a chance to toast them, with the other children they took in. "You took in a punk kid and taught me how to love," Mason tells them, and we have seen the power of their teaching in Mason's way with both the kids and Grace.
Grace struggles with her own past, and the powerful connection she makes with a new resident named Jayden, who has serious problems with her father, helps her begin to come to terms with very difficult feelings. A good deal of Short Term 12 is a sensitive depiction of the ways in which we acknowledge and express things that have hurt us -- sometimes in very small increments -- and how expressing them allows us to live more fully, and let other people into our lives.
None of the residents of the home called Short Term 12 are "bad" kids or "good" kids -- they're kids with vulnerabilities and weaknesses, who by acknowledging them are able to achieve some degree of transcendence. We don't know how many of them have psychiatric issues and how many are just damaged by abusive or neglectful environments -- and of course we do know that kids with psychiatric issues often attract abuse in very troubled families.
The backdrop to the film is the system, which sends kids to Short Term 12, highlighted when newbie staffer Nate asks on his first day,"How long do they stay here?" Grace unflinchingly responds, "Less than a year, but we have a few that have been here a little over three -- we just keep them until the county figures out where they are going to go next."
In my years as a child and adolescent psychiatrist I have seen many kids fall through the cracks in an overwhelmed mental health care system. But what kids get at Short Term 12 is really a substitute family; an ad hoc family that shows how much can be achieved, despite daunting odds, with mutual trust, open-mindedness, and patience.
Short Term 12 arrives in theater August 23rd in New York and LA. For more on the film visit ShortTerm12.com
Just how outrageous are the roadblocks to children's mental health care? Take the Children's Mental Health Quiz to find out.
Harold S. Koplewicz, MD, is a leading child and adolescent psychiatrist and the president of the Child Mind Institute, whose website, childmind.org, offers information on childhood psychiatric and learning disorders.