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'Short Term 12' review: Brie Larson for an Oscar nom

***1/2 (out of four)

It’s extremely difficult to craft a movie about a topic as serious and complex as foster care and not make the experience of watching the film feel like work or an after-school special. Fortunately, “Short Term 12” is just special.

Writer-director Destin Cretton’s SXSW prizewinner pulls off the trick of feeling neither grueling nor softened. Rather than manipulation or pummeling anguish, its goal is truth and release—something its characters know is anything but easy. In a breakout role that will earn an Oscar nod if there’s any justice, Brie Larson (“The Spectacular Now,” “21 Jump Street”) stars as Grace, a supervisor at the titular center where she and her colleague Mason (John Gallagher Jr. of “The Newsroom”) try to keep their romantic relationship a secret. At work, it’s not about them and shouldn’t be; there are too many teens who need guidance and support and, frequently, discipline. Grace develops a quick rapport with Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), who’s new to the facility but expects her dad to pick her up soon. The intuition and progression of their relationship doesn’t just feel honest. It’s crushingly real.

Transitioning between leadership and vulnerability, Larson is exceptional in her ability to thread Grace’s experiences through her veins and behavior, rather than just words. “Your attitude is not helping either one of us,” she tells Jayden, Grace proving expert at maintaining a calm level so as not to escalate another’s. Delicately handling sensitive issues, Cretton establishes a nice balance between the kids’ challenges and Grace and Mason’s personal life while also suggesting the film could be a TV series. We learn useful information about the characters but still want more. Numerous performances, hiding and eventually revealing, deserve to be called knockouts.

Sure, Grace’s unexpected pregnancy at first feels like an inevitability. Throw a rock at a shelf of independent dramas, and chances are good you’ll hit one with a similar storyline. “Short Term 12,” however, resembles “The Wrestler” in its ability to find richness in familiarity. Rather than “seen it before,” you think, “This all feels right” and don’t stop thinking about the movie when it ends. Besides, the pregnancy’s place in the story is justified, not lazy.

Though some events and dialogue feel a tad deliberate, “Short Term 12” brings huge heart to the cyclical nature of trauma, not to mention what it takes to live with something difficult every day and the help and hope needed during a never-ending process. Deep scars only heal so much.

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