The latest contender for the indie slot at nomination time, “Short Term 12” takes viewers into the world of teen foster-care institutions, focusing both on troubled residents in limbo and on staff members, some barely into their 20s, who feel drawn to the kids because of their own hellish pasts.
While it is too slight to be a knockout, and writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton can overdo it with feel-good seasoning, the film triumphs and is unique, in showing foster-care life and as an intimate personal journey.
Expanding his 2008 short film, Cretton (“I Am Not a Hipster”) sets his drama in a facility that houses abused and abandoned adolescents.
Responsible for their safety is a line staff whose duties range from stopping runaway attempts to searching bedrooms for sharp objects to easing tantrums.
Calm, devoted, 20-something Grace (Brie Larson) supervises the staff. Her employees include her boyfriend, Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), a kind, supportive partner on all fronts; he even bakes cupcakes.
They work together to help kids such as Marcus (Keith Stanfield), a talented rapper who, fearing his impending exit from the system, is acting destructively.
Grace, too, harbors demons, which surface when unexpected developments challenge the equilibrium she puts forth. These include an unplanned pregnancy, her incarcerated father’s upcoming release, and the arrival of 15-year-old Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever).
Grace sees aspects of herself in the withdrawn, self-cutting Jayden. When a bureaucratic decision endangers the girl, Grace begins unraveling.
Indeed, there is dark stuff here, and, not unlike “Fruitvale Station,” the film sometimes seems to be trying to offset the grimness by overapplying sunshine in upbeat passages.
An inexperienced employee named Nate (Rami Malek), used for comic relief, is too naive for credibility, and a few melodramatic crises feel false.
But when Cretton is operating in down-to-earth, naturalistic gear, the movie is a quietly powerful mini-jewel about the intricacies and scariness of connecting, trusting and caring. It also powerfully depicts the reverberations of child abuse.
Cretton enhances the story’s grip by steadily supplying bits and occasional jolts from characters’ histories. This, combined with informal interactions that advance the story, results in complex, rewarding characters. It is satisfying to piece together why Grace cannot open up to the man she loves. A scene revealing a key childhood element provides lovely insight into Mason.
While Gallagher shines in boyfriend mode, Larson is central to the film’s success. Like Elizabeth Olsen in “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” she aces an emotionally demanding role with her unembellished but rich portrait of a damaged soul.
Short Term 12
With Brie Larson, John Gallagher Jr., Kaitlyn Dever, and Keith Stanfield
Written and directed by Destin Daniel Cretton
Running time 1 hour, 36 minutes