Our focal point is Grace (Brie Larson), an employee at Short Term 12 who comes from a troubled background herself (her father is in prison) and who loves the kids in her charge. She and her scruffy boyfriend, Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), a fellow employee, explain to a new hire, Nate (Rami Malek) -- and to us -- how the place operates.
We're not their parents or their therapists, Grace says. We're just here to create a safe environment. Someone's always posted at the gate, and you try to stop the kids from running away if you can, but you're not allowed to touch them once they're off the property. Knowing this, the kids will make surprise dashes for the gate sometimes, turning it into a game as the adults scramble to catch them before they're out of bounds. Never a dull moment when you work at Short Term 12!
The kids are mostly decent -- confused, hurt, angry, and scared sometimes, but not bad kids. Marcus (a scene-stealing Keith Stanfield), barely keeping his rage in check, is about turn 18 and graduate into the real world. Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), a new arrival, is a cutter who's counting on her father to take her home soon. Small, shy Sammy (Alex Calloway) is one of the frequent runaways. A handful of others add color without being stereotypes, effectively playing on our natural tendency to root for children, especially damaged ones.
Shrewdly, Cretton has chosen to focus not on the kids, or even on Grace's relationship with them, but on the way her work with them affects her life, changes her. She learns she's pregnant at the beginning of the film, and she's unsure what to do. She sees evidence of negligent parenting every single day. Her own parents failed her. Mason, a devoted boyfriend and a good man, was in the foster system himself. As Grace valiantly strives to help the kids with their problems, she fumbles toward solutions to her own. Brie Larson's performance is tremendously affecting, an honest and un-showy portrayal of a messed-up woman trying to be less messed-up.
All the performances are good, though -- natural, raw, and unforced, with small touches that lend intimacy. You get an overwhelming sense of the filmmaker's compassion for people as he conveys a simple, reassuring message: no matter what your problems are, there's someone who wants to help.