- - Thursday, August 29, 2013

More than most films, “Short Term 12” dissolves the divide between itself and the audience. The performances are so wrenching and so honest that it feels at times as though the story is unspooling live, in real-time.

It’s an unabashedly emotional film that centers entirely on the lives and well-being of its characters. The movie is set around life in a group home for troubled teens. Grace (Brie Larson) is the leader of a small staff of twenty-something minders who are there to keep tabs on the kids under their care, make sure they take their pills and don’t run off the grounds. The kids here are true castoffs. They are orphaned, or abandoned, or deemed too wild or reckless for their parents or for foster care.

The older professionals who work at the home are shown mostly on the periphery, and the staff is so young that it’s not immediately clear who are the inmates in this particular asylum. This is by design, because Grace, as we soon learn, is the product of the kind of scarring home environment familiar to the teens in her care. But despite her natural empathy and her ability to inspire confidence in others, she’s still locked down by her own traumas.

The world of the group home seems to suit Grace. She’s effective at corralling the teens to follow the rules, and encouraging them to create the semblance of a community. But when Grace learns she’s pregnant, her hold on the world begins to collapse. Her colleague and boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) is loving and lavish with his patience for her psychological torment, but it’s not enough to make Grace believe that she has the fortitude to raise a child.

The impending departure of Marcus (Keith Stanfield), who is set to age out of the facility when he turns 18, adds to the tension. He’s bottled up with rage and sadness like Grace, and his withdrawal from the life of the home as he nears the end of his time mirrors Grace’s own feelings. The arrival of Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), an artistically gifted but primordially angry adolescent girl, pushes Grace to take an active role in coaxing out the buried sources of her rage, and in doing so discover her own protective, parental impulses.

Director Destin Cretton uses a minimalist palette to avoid melodrama or cliche. The somewhat jumpy hand-held camera adds to the verisimilitude, but the scenes don’t drag out so long that this becomes a distraction. The interiors are realistically claustrophobic, but never so gloomy that it seems like there is some artistic insistence on natural light. 

Mr. Cretton does what he can to get out of the way of his actors, with remarkable results. Miss Larson, who has shown a gift for deadpan in the Showtime series “The United States of Tara,” here is astonishingly honest. She seems almost to have forsaken technique to convey a sense of immediacy and improvisation. Mr. Gallagher and Mr. Stanfield similarly deliver performances that cut closer to the bone than is generally considered in good taste these days.

★★★ 1/2

TITLE: Short Term 12

CREDITS: Written and directed by Destin Cretton

RATING: R for language and mature themes

RUNNING TIME: 96 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS