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Short Term 12

Set inside a group home for troubled teenagers, this film, the second by young director Destin Cretton, has almost nothing in common with Fruitvale Station, yet I keep thinking of them together. Both proceed with seemingly unforced naturalism to tell stories about ordinary lives whose problems unfold into understanding rather than melodrama. (The conclusion of Fruitvale Station is where the two separate.)

The unnamed facility is staffed by young people in their mid 20s or so. Whether or not it’s by design, they themselves seem to be the products of an environment like this one. The film initially floats among characters and their perspectives before settling on Grace (Brie Larson) and her boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher Jr., whom you’ll recognize as Jim Harper from HBO’s The Newsroom). Theirs has been a tenuous relationship because she shies away from intimacy. Mason tries to draw her out, but that doesn’t happen until she bonds with new arrival Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), a teenager facing the same issues Grace has been trying to bury in her past.

The major story arc may be somewhat obvious, but it serves to tie together a film filled with small scenes of sometimes piercing poignancy, like when Marcus (Keith Stanfield), almost 18 and as unhappy to leave as he is unwilling to admit that fact, shares with Mason a rap about his mother. Cretton spent some time working in a home like this, and earlier made a short film of the same name before expanding it into this feature. These are stories that he needs to tell, not at all the same thing as stories he thinks will bring him success as a filmmaker.

If his movie has a fault, at least to my eyes, it’s that we never really get a grip on the operations of this home, which at times seems to be run entirely by its young staff. It may not be necessary to the stories Cretton wants to tell, but unfulfilled curiosity is an itch you can’t ignore.

I have every reason to hope that Short Term 12 will be one of those unheralded little films that ends up sticking around local theaters for a few months because of word of mouth. But don’t take that chance—see it this week and be the one creating that word of mouth.

Watch the trailer for Short Term 12

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