There's a powerful sense of place and people in "Short Term 12," which is set in a care facility for temporarily unplaceable kids and teens who are often repositories of others' dysfunction. But it's also about empathy -- its nature, its origins and its power.
As portrayed by the amazing Brie Larson, Grace is not a seasoned professional in the realm of mental health care. If anything, that she operates on instinct so much of the time -- instinct, and her own experience with errant authority -- makes her a more effective advocate and confidante of the kids she has to tend. They include a sensitive kid named Sammy (Alex Calloway), who finds solace in dolls; the angry Marcus (Keith Stanfield), who's a short-timer (he'll be 18 soon) and acts that way; and the sullen Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), who's a cutter, assaultive and in whom Grace finds her own reflection.
Director-writer Destin Daniel Cretton worked as a staff member in a similar type of home, and the real-life experience certainly pays off in the utter naturalism of "Short Term 12," which also boasts an outstanding cast. John Gallagher Jr.'s Mason, Grace's colleague and love interest, is a novel character, a male without ego in total solidarity with Grace's agenda, be it emotional or professional; he's refreshingly sensitive without being moist. Dever is as brittle at times as Jayden requires, but her soft gooey center is convincing as well. It's Larson's movie, though, and whether as Grace is listening to someone's troubles, or venting her own, you buy every minute of it.
PLOT The day-to-day life at a foster-care facility, where some very sympathetic young adults wrangle some seriously unsettled guests.
RATING R (suicidal violence, sexual abuse, language)
CAST Brie Larson, John Gallagher Jr., Kaitlyn Dever
BOTTOM LINE Tender, funny and real as a kick in the ribs