Short Term 12: In Praise of Being “In Progress.”

By Alyce YoungbloodSeptember 26, 2013

Last week, the TWLOHA team saw a film called Short Term 12. Our founder, Jamie, had highly recommended it, and by the time the credits rolled, we knew we wanted to share about it with our supporters. Every now and then, a movie presents a unique framework to help viewers better understand mental health topics that are otherwise limited by statistics and stereotypes—and this is one of those special times.

Short Term 12 is set in a short-term foster care facility for at-risk teenagers, and its protagonist is Grace (Brie Larson), a 20-something supervisor who is as skilled at charming the residents as she is at keeping them in line. In addition to the home’s administrators and psychologists, she’s joined by a small daily staff, including her affable boyfriend, Mason (John Gallagher, Jr.), and together they manage the kids’ schedules, group recreation, medicine distribution, and, when necessary, their outbursts. Of course, this is tough work—and as Short Term 12 goes on, it becomes even tougher when Grace is forced to face her own past and ongoing struggles in light of the events in the home. I won’t say much more about it, for those who want to see it, but I will say this is a beautiful, intimate film about imperfect people in imperfect circumstances, and I was both challenged and comforted by watching it.

One thing I loved about Short Term 12 was the levity it brought to what must be a harsh and unpredictable environment. TWLOHA would call this “heavy and light”—the fact that, even in the midst of very serious and even heartbreaking situations, there is room for life and laughter. A young man rattled by his abusive upbringing can still find a friend in a pet fish and his voice in hip-hop music. A bright girl struggling to make sense of her self-injury and her parents’ failures might feel safer with dry humor and pencil sketching. Employees exhausted by the investment of their work sometimes need to step outside to swap stories or go for a bike ride. A group of people, all bearing their own emotional and physical scars, can smile over cupcakes, group games, dancing, and inside jokes. Just as the residents of the home fill their stark white rooms with colorful posters, crafts, and sentimental trinkets, the characters of Short Term 12 bring vibrant, hilarious, and human qualities to some of life’s bleaker realities.

It should be noted, this film is not easy to watch. In fact, it can be incredibly difficult to watch. To boldly and honestly portray issues that would be encountered in a home for at-risk teens, a film has to show the pain, the struggle, the complexity, and even the violence that might exist in such a place. The director, Destin Daniel Cretton, once worked in a facility like Short Term 12, and he draws from those real-life experiences. As a result, someone who has been affected by self-harm, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, or abuse might be a bit sensitive to the content and should consider whether or not they are in a good place to watch it. However, while the raw nature of the story and the incredibly realistic performances within it might make some viewers uncomfortable, these are also reasons why Short Term 12 is an important work. It is a multi-layered, stunning portrait of what love looks like—the unconditional, messy kind that keeps people going, keeps them fighting. And ultimately, it is a story of hope.

Are there happy endings for everyone? No. Is every problem solved, every injustice made right, every plot point wrapped up neatly? Of course not. But that’s how life is, and that’s why stories like this resonate so deeply. What Short Term 12 conveys in less than two hours, what TWLOHA has been saying for the past seven years, and what we hope you will learn and embrace every day is this: you have permission to simply be “in progress.” It’s OK that you aren’t always OK—and if you are determined, if you are honest, if you are joined by compassionate hearts, we believe you will be.


Short Term 12 is currently playing in theaters in select U.S. cities and will be expanding to others. You can learn more about the film, see what others are saying about it, and check out showtimes here. The film is rated R and, as mentioned above, it deals with some serious content, so please use discretion if you are considering viewing it.

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Comments (2)

  1. b.e. noll

    Thanks for sharing Alyce.
    I can only think of quotes as I read this.
    “Love isn’t pretty, it’s pretty necessary.”
    It is difficult to deal with us. All of us. We are broken. Our cracks are the same depth. No two cracks are anything alike. Our stories may have some similar “chapter headings”, but the details are different. How we process the details are different. I have thought & said to a few people: “imperfect people, living in an imperfect universe, what could possibly go wrong? Only everything.” I be on the lookout for this film, however I might see it on the small screen.
    one last quote
    “What we all have in common is…that each of us are unique.”

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  2. kymberly

    i may have to watch this. I was in a group home–residential treatment–for seven weeks. it was pretty tough, but it really is crazy how in the midst of all that, the littlest things can make a difference. like making art for our bare bedroom walls, and baking together, and our private jokes.

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