To speak of the plot is difficult because, on the surface, it sounds unapproachable -- like a teaching moment freighted by morals and upheavals.
However, "Short Term 12" is a revelation: a film about girls and women that respects them as a sex as well as focusing on the damage done by abuse in the lives of females. The title refers to the time an adolescent is sentenced to a safe house, a group home, a foster arrangement. The story begins, as so many stories do, with the introduction of a newby into that house. Nate has come to be a counselor. He is mentored by two good people, who explain to him that he is there to "create a safe environment," not to be a parent or a friend but to be a steady presence in unsteady lives.
The focus of the film is on the characters of Grace and Mason, compassionate and level-headed and caring 20-somethings. They work together at the group home and they live together. But something is missing in their relationship, and Mason pleads with Grace to talk to him. "You're going to have to let me in your head once in a while, or I'm going to go nuts."
Grace can maintain a good, healthy distance from her charges until her boss asks her to watch over a friend's child, named Jayden. "Nice name," Grace says to her. "It's a boy's name," Jayden says. "I don't think of it as a boy's name," soothes Grace. "Will Smith thought so," says the smart aleck.
Jayden is the catalyst, the child who forces Grace to look at her own reasons for being a counselor as well as for being a rotten roommate to Mason. "Short Term 12" focuses on this triangle, but it encompasses the group of children in the house, including a black teen about to be released into the adult world and an autistic boy with dolls that comfort him.
Brie Larson, also seen in "The Spectacular Now," is excellent as Grace, and John Gallagher, who plays Jim Harper on "Newsroom," is very good as Mason. Caitlyn Dever plays the complex Jayden with heart.
"Short Term 12" was written and directed by Destin Cretton as an enlargement of a short by the same title. His cameras are always moving among his cast, and he understands irony -- yes, that's "The Little Rascals" playing on the TV in the rec room. The film works at every level. The film is true in terms of therapy, in terms of the damage that adults visit upon children, especially sexual invasion, and in terms of relationships. "Short Term 12" is an exceptional movie.