WARNING: This article contains mentions of abuse and self-harm.
If you met your younger self, what would you say?
What advice would you give?
For me, I know what I’d say in an instant. I’d tell myself to worry less, go out more and for God’s sake don’t dye your hair blonde.
However, for Grace Howard in Destin Daniel Cretton’s forgotten feature Short Term 12, her advice comes in an alternative form. As her sturdily built walls crumble, she’s forced to deal with the resurgence of issues she’s spent years trying to forget.
Based at the short-term care facility for at-risk children known as Short Term 12, Grace (Brie Larson) is an expert when it comes to the children under her care. She rattles off the technical spiel to newbie Nate (Rami Malek) as if it’s ingrained into her.
“Remember: you are not their parent, you are not their therapist, you are here to create a safe environment and that’s it.”
Grace recites this while shooting a water pistol at one of the young residents, Luis, as he refuses to wake up, chasing him into the bathroom moments later.
We’re introduced to a Grace that’s far from who we come to know outside of the comfort of Short Term 12. Much like her residents, Grace is guarded. Her cards are firmly placed close to her chest, so much so, not even her long-time partner and colleague Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) can read them.
“Please, you’re gonna have to let me into your head once in a while… you’re going to go nuts.”
But despite how much she may try, Grace can’t hide her issues forever. And with the introduction of new resident, fourteen-year-old Jayden (Kaitlin Dever), the walls of Grace’s barricade slowly begin to tumble down.
Jayden is introduced as an introverted, stubborn teen, keeping to herself and saying very little to the other residents to remove the chance of attachment. She’s only under the weekday care of staff at the facility, visiting her father on the weekends in the hopes that she’ll be reintroduced to his care full time.
Grace and Jayden test the waters with one another – Grace lays down the law with the ‘no cussing’ rule while Jayden shows her rebellious side, sticking drawings of penises on her wall.
The similarities between Grace and Jayden are more than coincidental. Initially, we see their creative sides are nothing short of impressive. Jayden’s drawing of a cockroach lifted by balloons and Grace’s picture of Mason are certainly a match for one another in proficiency and creativity. But that’s not their only similarity.
After her father fails to visit on her birthday, Jayden self-harms, pressing her nails into her hand. Later in the film, as Grace finds out her father is to be released from prison, we see her do the same.
As the tightly-knitted truths woven into the minds of these characters unravel, it’s clear that it’s not just the audience that notices how similar the pair are – Grace begins to see similarities too.
We’re given subtle clues to Grace’s issues throughout, only given a definite resolution towards the end as Grace admits her father was abusive – she’s the reason that he is in prison.
When Grace hears Jayden’s cryptic story of an octopus named Nina and a deceivingly friendly shark, Grace is convinced that Jayden’s experiencing something similar to what she did as a teen. She becomes fiercely protective of Jayden, even screaming at her boss as he refuses to believe her story. This scene is particularly haunting after multiple watches, as you realise the context of Grace’s emotional fury, making you wonder exactly what she had to do when she was in the same situation all those years ago.
It’s little nuances such as this that make it seem as if Grace sees Jayden as a younger version of herself – a version she can save from the horrors of abuse.
But, the most interesting part about Short Term 12 is that as Grace tries to save Jayden, Jayden really saves Grace.
Much like how Grace sees her past self in Jayden, Jayden sees Grace as her future. She becomes more and more aware of their likeness and realises that this makes Grace a person she can trust – she’s sat directly in her shoes. If it hadn’t been for Jayden’s intervention in the film’s climax, Grace certainly would have done something regrettable in an attempt to solve the source of Jayden’s pain and the vision of hers.
Grace and Jayden’s relationship in Short Term 12 is full of complexities. Both attempt to deal with almost identical issues head-on: Grace treating Jayden as the version of herself she wished she could protect and Jayden preventing a version of herself she has yet to face from a reckless choice she would forget.
Yet, it isn’t until watching the film for the second time that you truly understand the brilliant subtly in their connection, and how deeply Larson and Dever have woven their performances together to create an unspoken connection between characters that have barely met.
Short Term 12 is an astonishingly beautiful and personal film. Grace and Jayden’s relationship is its beating heart, their relationship is a hauntingly real echoing of one another with Grace’s actions giving Jayden the help she so desperately needed years ago and Jayden providing the care Grace never knew she needed.
Short Term 12 explores the past as it overwhelms the present, and brings to life the realisation that often those that need help are often the ones giving help in the first place.