Director Destin Daniel Cretton’s first job out of college was working at a halfway home for troubled teens and, rather like author Ken Kesey’s stint working at a mental institution, he clearly gained some insight and a fistful of vivid characters from the experience. The resulting film, “Short Term 12,” is unlike other “institutionalized” dramas such as “Girl, Interrupted” or “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” in that it has a lot of sympathy for the young social workers who are doing their best to help the kids in their care — learning to deal with freak-outs, cultivating a sense of humor under fire and finding creative ways to connect with traumatized, defensive kids.
“Short Term 12” is a film of remarkable performances that cultivate an intense intimacy with the camera. Best of the lot are Brie Larson and John Gallagher Jr. as Grace and Mason, two counselors who have become romantically involved (a fact they try to hide from the kids). While the dramas at their workplace are front and center, the scenes of their home life — with Mason trying to figure out Grace’s bolted-down past — paints one of the most honest, tender and real portraits of affection between a couple that you’ll ever see.