TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Just out of college, director Destin Daniel Cretton took a job at a Southern California short-term care facility for at-risk teenagers. His time there became the basis for a feature-length movie called "Short Term 12" starring Brie Larson and John Gallagher, Jr. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: It's easy to make fun of a certain kind of therapeutic language, the kind you hear all through the movie "Short Term 12." That title comes from the name of a group home for abused and/or unstable teens. Early on, a young counselor named Grace, played by Brie Larson, tells one smart-mouthed kid that, quote, your attitude is not helping either one of us, which would tend to make her a repressive drag in a typical Hollywood teen picture.
But Grace is among the film's most tortured figures. She proves therapy-speak doesn't have to be clueless or mechanical. It can be profoundly empathetic. And it can also heal the would-be healer. Every day Grace rides to work on a bicycle, and the moment she enters the squat facility, she begins a series of fraught negotiations with her charges. At times those dealings suggest documentary realism.
It's no surprise that writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton worked for two years in a short-term center. What is a surprise is that the only character he condescends to is the one based on him, a glib newbie named Nate, played by Rami Malek. I suspect Cretton is being hard on himself. On the basis of the movie, he seems to have, like Grace, a capacity for empathy that's limitless.
There's so much free-floating pain in "Short Term 12" that the hand-held camera's jitters seem unusually organic. We don't see the abusers - only the consequences of abuse. One of the smaller kids, Sammy, played by Alex Calloway, plays with dolls that an outside therapist decides to take away, leaving him barely reachable.
Keith Stanfield plays Marcus, a 17-year-old African-American who keeps his eyes down but has a keen awareness of slights. He's about to turn 18 and graduate into the real world, a prospect that fills him with dread. A new arrival is Jayden, a punky upper-middle-class girl played by Kaitlyn Dever. Grace introduces her at their community meeting to Marcus, little Sammy, and the others.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SHORT TERM 12")
BRIE LARSON: (as Grace) OK, everyone. I think most of you have already met her, but we have a new member of our community. Jayden, would you introduce yourself?
KAITLYN DEVER: (as Jayden) Um, please don't be offended if I'm not very friendly but I'm going to be living with my dad soon and I don't really like wasting time on short-term relationships. So you know, it's nothing personal.
KEITH STANFIELD: (as Marcus) Wow. She seems like a really nice girl.
LARSON: (as Grace) Hey. I think we all can respect her space. OK? OK. What do we want to play for rec today?
RAMI MALEK: (as Nate) Wiffleball.
LARSON: (as Grace) OK.
STANFIELD: (as Marcus) Aw, man. You're always playing that stupid game.
MALEK: (as Nate) Because you always suck at it. until you get good at it maybe we could stop playing it.
STANFIELD: (as Marcus) Watch your mouth, bro.
LARSON: (as Grace) Both of you, cut it out. Any other suggestions?
(as Grace) Yes, Sammy?
ALEX CALLOWAY: (as Sammy) Can we play big and small?
LARSON: (as Grace) Is that a real game or is that a game you just made up?
CALLOWAY: (as Sammy) It's a real game that I just made up.
LARSON: (as Grace) OK. Well, maybe you can explain to that me later.
EDELSTEIN: Jayden is very funny and an amazing artist, but her rage when it comes is demonic in its intensity, like something out of "The Exorcist." She reads to Grace an original story about an octopus who's friends with a shark that has haunted my dreams.
So has the rap song by Marcus, a series of horrific accusations against his mother that builds to a stinging lament for, quote, a life not knowing what a normal life's like. You don't catch Keith Stanfield or Kaitlyn Dever acting. They seem to be living this.
Brie Larson gives a breakout performance in "Short Term 12." I didn't recognize her from her role as the savvy ex-girlfriend in "The Spectacular Now." Her transparency made me forget that she's ever done anything else onscreen. There's no residue of other roles.
Grace has been a victim herself, and it's dismaying to watch her hold and talk her charges down and then act out at home with her boyfriend, another counselor name Mason, played by John Gallagher, Jr. from "The Newsroom." Gallagher's gentle, self-effacing performance is as finely wrought, in its way, as Larson's.
Director Destin Daniel Cretton has a clear design in "Short Term 12." Grace and Mason will have a breakthrough with a kid, and we'll think that's it, he or she is over the hump. Then the kid will have another outburst - a tantrum, say, or a bout of self-cutting - and the process will begin again. One step forward, one fall back. There's no cure, only the hope that something will get through a kid's defenses.
The mood is fraught, the equilibrium fragile, the score by Joel P. West so gentle it's as if the composer doesn't want to bruise the characters; it sweetens what we see without falsifying it. "Short Term 12" leaves you shaken, but not hopeless. It suggests that a certain kind of love, however short-term, can be everlasting.
GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. You can download podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org. And you can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair. Our blog is on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com.