Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Short Term 12

Genre: Drama
Premise: A young woman at a care facility for at-risk teenagers deals with an unexpected pregnancy.
About: One of the winners of the 2010 Nicholl Fellowship.
Writer: Destin Daniel Cretton
Details: 121 pages (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).

Well, we have another Nicholl winner here, which means we’re probably jumping into a character development sandwich with a healthy dose of thematic honey mustard. Gone are plot mechanics and the kind of poster that will bring the teenagers in in droves. But in their place is hopefully something that hits a little deeper and stays with you a little longer. And hey, it’s about teenagers. So maybe those mini versions of ourselves will show up.

Short Term 12 is a short term foster care facility for at-risk teenagers. 20-something Grace, one of the head counselors at the facility, has just learned of some unfortunate news – she's pregnant. Now Grace is in a happy loving relationship with fellow counselor Mason, so that's not the problem. The problem is that, like a lot of these kids she takes care of, she had a horrible childhood, and isn't keen on bringing another child into the world. So she doesn't tell her boyfriend, and sets up plans for an abortion.

But in the meantime, she's got a job to do. Over at Short Term 12 we meet the major players. There's 14-year-old Sammy, small for his age and someone who loves to run around without any clothes on screaming at the top of his lungs (for a similar story, see Carson's childhood). There's 17-year-old Mark, a beast of a teenager who rarely talks to anyone. There's 15-year-old sex-obsessed Kendra. And then there's the new girl, Jayden, a small girl with a big chip on her shoulder who reminds Grace of herself when she was younger.

Short Term 12 doesn't really have a plot. It's more about the day-to-day happenings of this facility. And it's quite a facility. All of these kids are here for a reason, that reason being that they don't fit into the confines of "normal" society. They've been left here mainly because they're considered rejects, and most of them are aware of this label and seem to live up to it if only because the world expects them to. A normal day might have one kid trying to escape, another kid trying to kill himself, and a third kid beating the hell out of his roommate. Being a counselor here and dealing with this stuff isn't easy, but most of the people who work here work here because they were at-risk kids themselves, and feel it's only appropriate that they give back.

The bulk of the story focuses on Grace and the new girl Jayden. We eventually learn that Grace was abused by her father when she was a kid and that Jayden is currently going through the same thing. The problem is that Jayden is afraid to admit it because she knows it means losing her father and being stuck in a place like this forever. So as Grace tries to save her, she's constantly running up against a wall. And of course, there's the reality that she's approaching this from a slightly selfish perspective. She feels that if she can help this girl, she can find closure in her own relationship with her father.

And then of course there's the whole pregnancy thing. She knows that if Mason were to find out, he would be thrilled, want to get married, and want to have the kid. But even though Grace knows she would never be the way her parent was with her, she's terrified of just how cruel this world can be to children and she doesn't want to put any human being through that, especially one she brings into the world herself. So the ultimate question, I suppose, is will Grace come around and want to have her child?

You know, this was a tough one to judge, especially after reading yesterday's script. Because yesterday's script was so full of fluff and so devoid of any real…well…anything, this script feels like reading American Beauty in comparison. It's all character development all the time. But even though it was nice to just experience the inner battles people go through every day, especially people like this who are so damaged, I was still craving some sort of story, some sort of wrapper, to bring it all together. I'm a greedy reader. I don't want all of one thing or all of another. I want everything. So even though this script had so much more depth and richness and passion than yesterday's offering, I still found myself moving my hand in a circular motion and subconsciously saying, "Okay, but where's the plot?"

But the script does teach some good lessons. I think the most obvious one is that you're able to bring more to the table if you write what you know (I would be shocked if the writer, Destin, didn't work at one of these facilities himself). What that affords you is specificity. Now it by no means guarantees a good story. Sometimes you can write what you know, yet only seem to find the most mundane boring parts of what you know. Believe me, I've read plenty of those scripts. But as long as you channel in on something that has dramatic potential, you can bring specific things in that nobody else who doesn't know that subject matter can, and the reader feels that. For example, Sammy running around naked. That feels very much like something that happened in real life that only someone who worked at a place like Short Term 12 would experience.

I also think the character development here is pretty good, especially for the character of Grace. When you don't have a plot driving your story, you need your characters to develop in an interesting way. You need interesting things about their backstory to come up (we find out some disturbing things about her father from early on in her life). You need interesting choices that cut to the core of the issues they’re having (she has to deal with whether or not to have her baby). You need to put them in positions that force them to think about their point of view (she meets someone who reminds her of herself when she was a kid). That's how you develop an interesting character. I don't think that this is ever going to be as compelling as if you have a story driving things forward, but if you don't have that story, you better have an interesting character. And I think Short Term 12 does.

There were also a couple of signals that this writer had studied his craft. Destin knew he would be constantly explaining how the facility worked, so he brought in the "question character," a new counselor who would constantly be asking questions so that the other characters could explain things to him (and by association, to us). This is a tool that every writer should have in their tool shed.

I also liked how Destin used the pregnancy as a soft ticking time bomb. Again, we have a story here without any real form so it's important to frame it in any way possible so that the audience has some sense of when it's going to end. The decision on whether or not to have the abortion was a great way to do that. Incidentally, I would've liked if it would've been highlighted more, such as a specific day that was coming up, or maybe just have the characters talk about it more (it seemed to be forgotten a tad in the second act), but I still thought it was well executed.

You know, I wish this script would've had more story, but when I'm taking everything into account, I would have to say that it does a lot more good than bad. Destin did a great job with character development here, much better than most scripts I read, and to that end this is deserving of a "worth the read."

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Writing what you know does not guarantee a good script. What it does guarantee is knowledge. You know that subject matter better than 99% of the people out there and that's what you want to take advantage of. The reason David Seidler was able to write that memorable scene in The King's Speech where Birdy reads while listening to music was because Seidler himself was a stutterer and was taught the exact same thing. Those are the kinds of memorable moments that only come from experiencing that stuff yourself (or through heavy research). Still, no matter how well you know a particular subject matter, no matter how much you've lived it, it's always best to wrap that subject matter in an entertaining concept/story. Don't get me wrong, Short Term 12 was a solid script, but this is a script that never would have been heard of without the Nicholl Fellowship, as it's the only place that really celebrates these kinds of screenplays.