“Forget everything taught you in those classes,” a new helper is told as he arrives at a care home-cum-way-station for damaged teens in Destin Cretton’s indie drama. Forget everything you’ve seen in films about lost kids and their inspirational saviours, too.
Cretton could have wrung his second feature dry for every last drop of grim voyeurism or sentimental hooey. Instead, he taps his own experiences in the care-home trenches to craft a film where the emotions – tough, tender, often tumultuous – feel almost entirely lived.
The key to it is Brie Larson, previously an indie bit-part mainstay ( Greenberg , Rampart , this month’s Don Jon ) who here confirms her character-actor cred as young-but-weathered carer Grace.
Sensitive yet straight-talking with her charges, Grace is damaged herself and far from saintly: just ask her matey BF and co-worker Mason (John Gallagher Jr), who gets his nose bloodied during cosy time with his partner.
Both film and Grace are challenged when posh self-harmer Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) arrives at the home, bearing horrific emotional and physical scars that reflect Grace’s own past traumas enough to propel both on a quasi-redemptive parallel arc.
If that narrative spine sounds over-plotted, Cretton keeps it alive by drip-feeding any revelations against a bustling, sometimes disarmingly humorous backdrop.
When the camera pauses to watch Keith Stanfield’s Marcus deliver a raw rap, or Dever read out an agonisingly revealing short story, the naturalistic performances imbue potentially clichéd set-pieces with heart-in-mouth conviction.
Cretton does dip into melodrama, but these are minor lapses in a film that rarely forces the plot’s hand for emotional effect, especially in its refusal of glib closure.
A climactic burst of sudden motion cannily reminds us that some feelings are too complex to pin down, and that salving them is the stuff of long-haul struggle.
Short Term 12 appears in our 30 best movies on Amazon Prime.