Short Term 12

A tender, quiet film like “Short Term 12,” so full of humanity and compassion and populated by rich characters, is a soothing balm after a steady diet of raucous, bombastic fare. Even if you tend to seek out thoughtful independent dramas over studio blockbusters anyway, you’ll be impressed by how well this one is executed, a standout among standouts.

The cheerless, impersonal name of the setting, Short Term 12, means it’s one of at least a dozen facilities in the county designated as group homes for teens in the foster-care system. It’s supposed to be temporary, no more than a year, but several residents have been there longer. A few have had brushes with the law, and a few are “at risk” for other reasons. They’re boys and girls, white, black, and Latino. All they have in common is that they don’t have parents to take care of them.

Our focal point is Grace (Brie Larson), an employee at Short Term 12 who comes from a troubled background herself (her father is in prison) and who loves the kids in her charge. She and her scruffy boyfriend, Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), a fellow employee, explain to a new hire, Nate (Rami Malek) — and to us — how the place operates.

We’re not their parents or their therapists, Grace says. We’re just here to create a safe environment. Someone’s always posted at the gate, and you try to stop the kids from running away if you can, but you’re not allowed to touch them once they’re off the property. Knowing this, the kids will make surprise dashes for the gate sometimes, turning it into a game as the adults scramble to catch them before they’re out of bounds. Never a dull moment when you work at Short Term 12!

The kids are mostly decent — confused, hurt, angry, and scared sometimes, but not bad kids. Marcus (a scene-stealing Keith Stanfield), barely keeping his rage in check, is about turn 18 and graduate into the real world. Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), a new arrival, is a cutter who’s counting on her father to take her home soon. Small, shy Sammy (Alex Calloway) is one of the frequent runaways. A handful of others add color without being stereotypes, effectively playing on our natural tendency to root for children, especially damaged ones.

Troubled teens, concerned adults, lives being changed: Many a tear has been yanked undeservedly from viewers through just such a scenario. “Short Term 12” isn’t one of those treacly, contrived inspirational fables, though — far from it. Watching the film, I was struck by its apparent authenticity, the way it seemed to capture the real ins and outs of an urban group home. No surprise, then, that writer-director Destin Cretton worked for two years at such a place, and drew from his experiences. (He also made a 20-minute short film, using the same title, that won top honors at Sundance in 2009.)

Shrewdly, Cretton has chosen to focus not on the kids, or even on Grace’s relationship with them, but on the way her work with them affects her life, changes her. She learns she’s pregnant at the beginning of the film, and she’s unsure what to do. She sees evidence of negligent parenting every single day. Her own parents failed her. Mason, a devoted boyfriend and a good man, was in the foster system himself. As Grace valiantly strives to help the kids with their problems, she fumbles toward solutions to her own. Brie Larson’s performance is tremendously affecting, an honest and un-showy portrayal of a messed-up woman trying to be less messed-up.

All the performances are good, though — natural, raw, and unforced, with small touches that lend intimacy. You get an overwhelming sense of the filmmaker’s compassion for people as he conveys a simple, reassuring message: no matter what your problems are, there’s someone who wants to help.

A- (1 hr., 36 min.; R, a lot of profanity, brief sexuality.)

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