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‘Short Term 12’ wise beyond its years

‘SHORT TERM 12’ ★★★★

Grace Brie Larson

Mason John Gallagher Jr.

Jayden Kaitlyn Dever

Marcus Keith Stanfield

Sammy Alex Calloway

Cinedigm presents a film written and directed by Destin Daniel Cretton. Running time: 96 minutes. Rated R (for language and brief sexuality). Opens Friday at local theaters.

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Updated: October 15, 2013 6:07AM

You will not see “Short Term 12” among the marquee menu choices in most theaters, but you owe it to yourself to see this film, either at one of the four Chicago-area venues where it is playing or when it becomes available for home viewing.

It’s one of the best movies of the year and one of the truest portrayals I’ve ever seen about troubled teens and the people who dedicate their lives to trying to help them.

If that sounds like a homework assignment or an indie-fied “Afterschool Special,” it’s not. Although some of the kids in this film are going through some serious … stuff (as are some of the young adults counseling them) and there are some deeply intense passages, “Short Term 12” is also slyly funny, graceful, tender and peppered with moments of small joy.

Brie Larson gives one of the most natural and at times one of the most heartbreaking performances of the year as Grace, who’s only about 25 but is basically in charge of a facility for at-risk teens who have nowhere else to go. (Fairly late in the film, when Grace storms into the office of her middle-aged boss to argue about a decision he’s made concerning one of the clients, we’re surprised there even is a boss. Whatever this guy does, he doesn’t spend much time in direct contact with the teenagers.)

Grace isn’t a psychologist or a psychiatrist, and at her age she couldn’t possibly have had more than a few years’ experience on the job — but every day when she arrives at the modest facility, she’s thrust into the role of mentor, surrogate big sister, disciplinarian, life coach and role model for these hardened kids, most of whom clearly admire her even as they’re giving her a rough time. She’s good at this.

The residents include the intelligent but often sullen Marcus (Keith Stanfield), who’s about to turn 18, which means he’ll have to move out; Sammy (Alex Calloway), a fragile, quirky kid who plays with dolls and periodically tries to escape (once you’re on the street, the counselors literally can’t touch you or bring you back), and Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), one of the youngest and newest arrivals and one of the most deeply troubled. Jayden’s a cutter, and she’s prone to fits of violence, and in a world with more funding for programs that help troubled kids, she’d be under the watch of doctors and psychiatrists, not well-meaning college grads who are sometimes in over their heads.

It’s through Jayden’s story that we learn about Grace’s own history. As we pick up pieces of Grace’s backstory, it’s easy to understand why she would choose this line of work — even though she hasn’t achieved anything approaching closure herself. Her boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), who also works at the facility, is madly in love with her but becomes increasingly frustrated by Grace’s habit of pulling away from true intimacy. (A seemingly romantic make-out session on their living-room sofa takes such a harsh turn you wouldn’t blame Mason if he packed his things and moved out on the spot, but that’s not who this guy is. He’s not a pushover; he just believes Grace is worth fighting for.)

“Short Term 12” has that small-indie feel without ever coming across as precious or self-congratulatory. Writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton, expanding his 22-minute short from 2008 into his first full-length feature film, reportedly worked as a staff member in a facility much like the one in “Short Term 12,” and it shows. He knows this material and he knows how to thread multiple story lines about the teens living there and the young grown-ups pouring their hearts into the job of showing these kids they do matter and they are worthy of attention and love.

There’s not a bad performance in the film. John Gallagher Jr., sporting the same 5-year-old’s haircut he has on the HBO series “Newsroom,” is excellent here as Mason, who will not let Grace not love him. Mason tells two great stories, one at the beginning of the film and one at the end, one hilarious and the other beautiful and romantic.

But this is mostly Grace’s story and mostly Brie Larson’s film to carry, and she is a revelation. What we’re seeing here is an actress with a long and wonderful career ahead of her.


Twitter: @richardroeper

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