The movie focuses on Grace, the tough but tender twenty-something who manages daily life for the teens at a foster care facility called Short Term 12. She is neither therapist nor surrogate mother — is only “line staff,” her boss reminds her — but her investment is full hearted and deeply rooted in her own troubled past, a history we learn more about as we watch the evolution of Grace’s relationship with Jayden, a new girl prone to sarcasm and self harm, and her romance with Mason, one of her coworkers.
Grace likes to tease; she likes to take care of business. She’s not afraid to slap a kid with a “level drop” when he crosses the line, but she’s got a soft heart that hasn’t learned its boundaries. When she’s not saving a kid’s life, or listening to his dreams, she’s worrying one of her hangnails; the camera often gets close on these tiny ragged emblems of her overworked concern. The whole movie is merciless in its gritty gaze, tinted with the vague, yellowish cast of inland Southern California: dirty sunlight and streaked vanilla stucco; the many beiges of institutional communal living (interior walls, exterior walls, bare mattresses, and neutral furniture).
Short Term 12 delivers us to a world full of food piled onto paper plates, games played on grass, adolescent walls decorated with manta ray posters and anatomical penis drawings, crooked desks messy with paperwork, and homemade tortillas eaten — at the end of a long day — on a shitty Goodwill couch. We see the steady bleed of emotional overtime, young adults caring relentlessly for their institutional older children: red velvet cupcakes baked before work; a friendship bracelet personalized with an initial; the abiding refuge of submerging private wounds under the flood of wounds one is being paid to tend. The film handles these dynamics in provocative and compelling — if not always subtle — ways, posing complicated questions about the legibility and porousness of pain: When we hurt for others, is it always because they remind us of some pain we’ve felt ourselves? Is it possible to care for someone who is suffering without offering the evidence of some comparable trauma? How do institutional structures — and institutional productions — make room for genuine emotional encounters?
Like I said: I cried three-and-a-half times. I cried when 17-year-old Marcus asked — just after getting his head shaved — if the bumps from his mom’s beatings were still visible. I cried when he broke from his tough-guy persona and dropped a box of craft supplies on the common room coffee table, demanding that the other kids make cards for Jayden, whose father was a no-show on her fifteenth birthday. I cried when Jayden read aloud the story she’d written about Nina, an octopus who systematically gives up all eight of her arms to a shark who convinces her this is what friendship means. The time I choked up but didn’t fully cry happened when Mason toasted his foster parents at their thirtieth wedding anniversary, thanking them in a fumbling Spanish that was their native tongue but not his own.
Every time I cried, or almost-cried, was a little different, though each contained a similar parfait of feelings: a layer of sadness (for the unreal character); a layer of hope (for the unreal character); a layer of skepticism (what does it mean to feel sadness or hope for an unreal character?); a layer of curiosity, both emotional and artistic (how have I come to feel this sadness/hope for an unreal character?); a layer of pride (I feel things so deeply I can even feel sadness/hope for an unreal character); a layer of shame (I feel more for this unreal character than I did for the homeless man I just passed in the street); another layer of shame, this one more specifically inflected by my role as a consumer (how have my emotional responses been so easily manipulated?) but also — it cannot be denied — a layer of consumer satisfaction: I am having a powerful experience, which is part of the implicit contract made between a film and its watchers. We give our time, and maybe our money, and in return we are given an experience that will somehow make us different than we were before we had it.
These days it seems no month goes by without some new celebration of the way that engaging with fictional situations can increase our capacity for empathy but what does it really mean to feel deeply for strangers who don’t exist? Oscar Wilde defined a sentimentalist as “one who wants to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it.” What kind of powerful experience was I having exactly when I cried? Do these feelings have value or does the embodied — tangible, tearful, actual — texture of our own response simply convince us that they do? Does my crying offer a quick fix or affective rush that inoculates against precisely the guilt that would prompt me to do something about what I’d witnessed? In a book called Empathy and the Novel, critic Suzanne Keen suggests that feeling sorry for unreal characters offers “a no-strings-attached opportunity for emotional transactions of great intensity. A novel-reader may enjoy empathy freely without having to pay society back in altruism” (168). Something similar must be at play in our consumption of all the fictions we buy, whatever their genres.
In a film like Short Term 12, one becomes aware of the subtle gradations of one’s own weepiness, the variations on that instantaneous lump in the throat. I find that the moments I cry are generally moments when some veneer ruptures (the tough guy asks a vulnerable question) or when private pain is trumped by altruistic concern (the tough guy pulls out a box of arts and crafts). The tears come from some tension between hope and pain, and there’s something good in this — my heart is being taught to hold hope and grief at once — but the danger is constant: that the hope will triumph too quickly, too fully, will heal too fully or unequivocally wounds best left festering.
One of the great gifts of the film is that it asks us to feel along so many vectors at once, and offers the absurd juxtaposition of these feelings as a kind of dare, a gauntlet: not just tears but the crude swell of hope, the burn of anger, the clenched fists of acute discomfort. There is no moment harder to watch than the one when the new guy on staff announces to a room full of underprivileged kids that he’s always “wanted to work with underprivileged kids.” The discomfort slices close to home, one imagines, for all those film-watchers feeling sorry for “underprivileged kids” at just that moment — no doubt feeling glad they’d taken the time to watch a film about their plight.
But the film doesn’t just give us the chance to feel these things, or to think about why we feel these things — it also tells a story about feeling, particularly about the tangled intersection of feeling and ethical obligation. How does emotional response relate to moral responsibility? When does a strong affective response spur us into right action, and when does it obstruct it? How does having an emotional response to a story affect our ability to act differently or better?
After Jayden tells Grace the story of Nina the Octopus — the one who sacrifices all eight legs to her friend the shark, only to find herself abandoned by him, becoming little more than a ragged pencil amputee on a journal page — Jayden starts crying, and Grace makes an important presumption about what lies behind her tears. Her boss comes down hard on her about this, about how emotional Grace has gotten in response to a client’s emotions, and about how this emotional response has clouded her judgment: “It’s not your job to interpret tears,” he says. And it’s a testimony to everything complicated and good about this film that he is made sympathetic in this moment — his manner asks us to trust that he cares about these kids as well. He simply represents a different way of approaching their plight.
In a recent New Yorker essay titled “The Baby in the Well: The Case Against Empathy,” Paul Bloom argues that following our emotional responses often privileges the suffering of more easily narrated or individuated lives — a little American girl trapped in the bottom of a well, for example — over the suffering of anonymous larger groups: the unknown, the unnamed, or the unborn. A “reasoned…analysis of moral obligations and likely consequences,” he argues, “is a better guide…than the gut wrench of empathy.” In other words, feeling strongly is not an unmitigated or unequivocal good; it can lead us in the wrong direction or make us complacent by convincing us we’ve already done something, simply by feeling something. This makes it difficult for us to fully indulge that flicker of pride we might feel about our own strong feelings in response to the film: that sense of being sensitive enough to feel the surging of that salt-swell buzz.
The movie examines the potential conflict between institutions and emotions, but doesn’t find them entirely opposed — the institutional space at the core of this film, after all, is full of emotional connection and genuine compassion. The film ultimately resists any easy binary division between emotional heat and institutional chill, passionate activism and hard-hearted adherence to protocol; but still we feel for Grace too, when she picks up her boss’s ugly new lamp in a fit of anger and smashes it against the asphalt of their staff parking lot.
In this moment, the question of sentimentality isn’t just hovering in the film’s margins, shadowing those waterworks it might want to produce, but directly dramatized by its plot: Grace has responded too strongly to tears. She has been pulled away from protocol and into the deep, dangerous grooves of emotional projection, supposition, and overreaction.
Short Term 12 is interested in dramatizing the relationship between trauma, stories about trauma, and the varieties of reaction these stories can aspire to produce. The film opens with an anecdote that turns trauma funny — Mason talks about shitting his pants when he gets threatened by one of the kids — and this alchemy shows yet another perilous relationship between storytelling and sentiment. Pain is deformed to play the role of court jester, to get an easy laugh, but the anecdote gets undermined twice: once by a boy who runs screaming across the frame, just as the story has reached its climax, demanding that the storyteller and his audience break from their entertainment and chase him down; and once again — later in the film — when the anecdote’s postscript is revealed: a tragic ending that isn’t funny at all.
This framing device, the “funny story” that turns out to have a terrible conclusion, is satisfying largely because it refuses to land on any kind of moral: the funny story wasn’t callous or insensitive; it was a coping mechanism, a way to survive in close proximity to pathos. But its humor wasn’t pristine, either, and doesn’t emerge unscathed; it’s streaked with blood that only shows up later, like invisible ink rising into the light.
The movie is like this: it insists that things are funny and tragic at once, both horrific and horrifically awkward; that folks are well intentioned and stupid, well intentioned and broken, well intentioned and angry, ill intentioned and unpunished. It takes recognizable storylines and keeps chewing on them, won’t let them rest. We see The Tough Guy With A Soft Spot For His Pet Fish and The Sheltered Guy Who Uses Too Much Hand Sanitizer; but we also see these characters collide and engage in thoughtful and surprising ways.
There are certainly “familiar tropes” here — and when I say “familiar tropes” I’m not quoting a specific person so much as the popular accusation that a piece of art contains what we’ve already seen, which might not necessarily be a bad thing. We see Jayden acting the part of sullen female teenager — dark eye shadow, squinty eyes, headphones-as-armor — who cuts herself with whatever she can find, including her own nails. We see Grace as the counselor who shows the girl her own cutting scars — we see the trope of that resonance, that I’ve been there too, and we hear a piece of old familiar wisdom about cutting: “You can’t worry about anything else when there’s blood coming out of you.” But we also watch the movie prove this wisdom hollow, because of course you can worry when there’s blood coming out of you — you can worry about someone else, about everything else: you can worry about a whole house of kids even when some part of you is still a bleeding kid too. Eventually we are invited to see Grace’s hangnail — the one she’s constantly tugging — as another kind of self harm, too; just an old lingering ghost. In a moment of crisis, it smears an arc of blood across her cheek. It’s not your job to interpret tears. It’s not that the film tells us what to make of this streak of blood but that the film has connected her bloody skin to Jayden’s bloody skin; and will connect both to the lines of blood we see elsewhere — across other skin, across institutional white walls.
More than instructing us to feel any particular way about trauma — to reach a verdict about the prime laboratory conditions for breeding empathy, or draw a hard line between saviors and villains — this film forces us to see how every life is a collection of damages placed in relation; jostling for elbow room on the day’s to-do list. For me, this film was no easy tear jerker but a lingering taste of salt in the back of my throat, asking me to wonder — to wonder harder — about why I felt so much for its fictive characters and what it meant to leave them behind, locked in the fictive suffering of their fictive world, while I returned fairly easily to mine. It’s not your job to interpret tears. And yet, here is a movie that commands us to interpret our own: to ask if crying for young people who never existed might help us help the ones who actually do.
Leslie Jamison's first novel, The Gin Closet, was a finalist for the 2010 Los Angeles Times First Fiction Prize. Her second book, a collection of essays called The Empathy Exams, will be published by Graywolf in early 2014. Follow her on twitter @lsjamison