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‘Short Term 12’ strikes the right balance

Sometimes a movie works not because of what it does but because of what it doesn’t do. Destin Daniel Crettin’s “Short Term 12” is like that: It has countless opportunities to run itself off the rails, to devolve into a soap opera or an afterschool special, but it never does.

In favoring small, intimate moments over contrived plot revelations and grand dramatic gestures, Crettin has built a strong, deeply effective personal story out of potentially problematic spare parts.

The film is mostly set in a short-term care facility for underprivileged children, all of whom are victims of broken homes, drug abuse, neglect and abuse. Crettin drops us right into the middle of this environment, which is exactly the right choice because we’re immediately carried along in the chaos of a universe already in progress. As the movie begins, it’s the first day for a new staff member at the facility, but the movie focuses primarily on two veteran staffers: Grace (Brie Larson from “The Spectacular Now”) and her live-in boyfriend, Mason (John Gallagher Jr. from the HBO series “The Newsroom”).

They’re both in their 20s, they’re intelligent and funny and seemingly even-keeled, but as they gradually reveal themselves to us we discover they’ve been shaped by the same circumstances as the teens they look after. Grace in particular is a fascinating contradiction: She encourages the kids to express themselves, and yet she hides behind a wall of insecurity, no doubt rooted in her deeply troubling relationship with her father. The more we learn about her, the more her personality quirks begin to resemble psychological scars.

As for the kids, they’re portrayed as more than the sum of their emotional issues. The movie finds a stealthy, compelling way to expose their backgrounds: At one point, sullen 17-year-old Marcus (Keith Stanfield) vents his frustrations through aggressive rap lyrics while a young girl named Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) writes a story about the doomed friendship between a shark and an octopus. These moments are illustrative of the movie as a whole, as they deal with harrowing, traumatic situations merely through the power of suggestion.

What’s astonishing is that this is only Crettin’s second feature, and he’s adapted it from a short film he made back in 2008. Some of his music cues are a little on-the-nose, and he relies too heavily on distractingly shaky camerawork, but more often than not he strikes just the right chord. It’s basically a tightrope act, and Crettin successfully walks the fine line between real emotional truth and maudlin sentimentality.

All of this sounds like it could be exhausting or depressing or even manipulative, but “Short Term 12” is a surprisingly honest and optimistic film that somehow finds humor and hope in its characters’ tragic circumstances. If anything, the movie ends before we’d like it to, though that’s more of a compliment than a criticism: After all, how often do you leave a movie wishing you could spend a little more time in the world it’s created?