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MOVIE REVIEW: Brie Larson shines in intriguing ‘Short Term 12’

SHORT TERM 12

(R)

3 and 1/2 out of 4 stars

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Brie Larson stars as Grace and Keith Stanfield stars as Marcus in “Short Term 12.” (Special Photo)

Playing out like a hybrid of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Thirteen” and an unfiltered after-school special, “Short Term 12” is one of the smartest, thoughtful, most ominous and yes, funniest movies of the year. The big problem facing it — at least from a commercial perspective — is getting people to pay to watch depressed teenagers deal with deep-seeded emotional issues ranging from neglect and battery to sexual abuse.

“Short Term 12” opens and closes with anecdotal conversations between the four 20-something overseers of a foster care facility housing roughly a dozen under-18 kids. The counselors aren’t talking about their jobs or individual cases but rather the kind of anecdotal bits of life people toss around in a bar or pub after hours. They all clearly love what they do (which is pretty much a requirement; nobody does this kind of work for the money) and collectively recognize it’s easier to get into a kid’s head through a back or side door instead of the front.

Brie Larson plays Grace, the head administrator of the facility who eschews makeup, the whims of fashion and prefers to commute by bike. A part-time singer and musician whose acting resume consists mostly of throwaway bubblegum fare that makes the Disney Channel look heavy by comparison, Larson — with this film, last month’s “The Spectacular Now” and next month’s “Don Jon” — has done something few, if any once-teenybopper female idols have ever done. She has broken free from the shackles of bouncy shallow fluff and firmly established herself as a seriously talented actress. As you’re reading this, Selena, Miley and multiple girls with names like Britney (or Brittany) are turning green with career envy.

In deference to writer/director Destin Cretton, it would probably be better not to go into details of Grace’s past — he does a good enough job of that on his own in the second half. It would be safe to say that Grace is more than qualified for the job and relies more on wiles than rules, although she’s not afraid to employ more of the latter when needed. Her second-in-charge is Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), a scruffy bearded dude who looks like he just rolled in from a Pearl Jam concert. He’s also Grace’s boyfriend, a position he (rightfully) cherishes greatly.

Instead of trying to examine all of the kids (which would have surely diluted the narrative), Cretton wisely focuses his primary sub-plot attention on just two of them. Marcus (Keith Stanfield), a black boy who — only because he will soon turn 18 — must leave the facility. A battery victim, lover of marine life and a budding poet, Marcus has been at Short Term 12 for about three years and while not an idyllic setting for any minor, it’s the best situation he’s ever known and he’s understandably bummed out.

Arriving at the facility at the end of the first act is Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), a white girl with major attitude who is there only because her father is a “friend of a friend” of Grace’s boss. Exhibiting talents as both a writer and artist, Jayden — because of her circumstances — becomes instantly relatable to Grace, who must keep herself in check if she’s ever to break through Jayden’s seemingly impenetrable wall.

As note perfect as he is the rest of the time, Cretton hits a major bump by including what seems like an avoidable story wrinkle that doesn’t make a lot of sense. If during their stay a resident decides to go AWOL, the counselors are allowed to try and stop them but if they don’t and the resident gets outside of the property, he/she/they cannot be touched and/or brought back. As these are all minors in the care of health care professionals working an apparent government-funded operation, this rule seems illogical and only present to satisfy another scene late in the third act. It’s the only facet of the film that doesn’t jibe.

If you think this film sounds intriguing (it is) and think you might want to see it (you should), keep in mind it isn’t all doom and gloom. Dotting the pools of darkness are rays of light, hope and smiles. For every heinous past act there’s another current one of enlightenment, release and catharsis. The pitch-dark of night yields to a brighter dawn and no becomes yes. In the end “Short Term 12” is ultimately a half-full glass and occasionally it joyfully fills and spills over top of the lip of the chalice. (Cinedigm)