"Short Term 12,” a superb sophomore effort by the young filmmaker Destin Daniel Cretton, is a quietly observant, hyper-aware piece of naturalistic drama that is full of offhanded astonishments.
The first might be its lead actress, Brie Larson — best known for her comic turns in the HBO series “The United States of Tara” and last year's hoot-and-a-half, “21 Jump Street” — who delivers a raw, honest performance to rival stars twice her age.
Larson plays Grace, a supervisor in a halfway house for troubled teens, who runs the home with the assurance and restraint her name suggests. When a newcomer named Nate (Rami Malek) joins the staff, she gently reminds him: He and his fellow counselors aren't there to be the client's friend or therapist or surrogate parent. Their job is simply to provide a safe space for their young charges until the system moves them along.
MOVIE PREVIEW: Short Term 12
It's just that sense of structure and carefully calibrated warmth that Grace so intuitively and expertly gives the kids under her care, a ragtag group of miscreants and left-behinds that includes Sammy (Alex Calloway), a redheaded boy who, when he's not playing with his cherished dolls, flies into periodic rages and tries to run away.
But Grace isn't quite as practiced in self-care, a fact that becomes clear when her interactions with a co-worker named Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) become more complex, and when a new resident named Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) pushes some of Grace's more problematic buttons.
As those two strands of the story converge, the plot of “Short Term 12” veers dangerously close to schematic, Screenplay 101 melodrama — a weakness that stands out in even sharper relief within a bracingly loose, improvisatory aesthetic style.