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movie review

Stars more than make up for uneven plot

‘Short Term 12’

“Short Term 12,” a superb sophomore effort by the young filmmaker Destin Daniel Cretton, is a quietly observant, hyper-aware piece of naturalistic drama that is full of offhanded astonishments. The first might be its lead actress, Brie Larson who delivers a raw, honest performance to rival stars twice her age.

Larson plays Grace, a supervisor in a halfway house for troubled teens, who runs the home with the assurance and restraint her name suggests. When a newcomer named Nate (Rami Malek) joins the staff, she gently reminds him: He and his fellow counselors aren’t there to be the client’s friend or therapist or surrogate parent. Their job is simply to provide a safe space for their young charges until the system moves them along.

It’s just that sense of structure and carefully calibrated warmth that Grace so intuitively and expertly gives the kids under her care, a ragtag group of miscreants and left-behinds that includes Sammy (Alex Calloway), a redheaded boy who, when he’s not playing with his cherished dolls, flies into periodic rages and tries to run away.

But Grace isn’t quite as practiced in self-care, a fact that becomes clear when her interactions with a co-worker named Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) become more complex, and when a new resident named Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) pushes some of Grace’s more problematic buttons.

As those two strands of the story converge, the plot of “Short Term 12” veers dangerously close to schematic, Screenplay 101 melodrama.

The most exhilarating things about “Short Term 12” aren’t the plot points but the myriad revelations that transpire between the characters moment by moment, whether in highly charged encounters in the facility itself or in more gentle interactions when Grace is at home.

Larson, a natural beauty who was also seen in the similarly accomplished teen romance “The Spectacular Now,” is receiving deserved buzz for her portrayal of Grace.

But for my money, the most startling performance among many in “Short Term 12” comes from an unknown young actor named Keith Stanfield, whose haunting portrayal of a terrified 18-year-old about to age out of the home recalls Matt Damon’s similarly expressive breakout performance in “Courage Under Fire.”

Where some viewers might think of it as a social-problem film, it’s far better understood as a romance. “Short Term 12” is that rare movie gutsy enough to tell the truth about love: that it’s not a poetic longing or a magical-thinking happy ending, but a skill.