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Short Term 12’ mixes honesty with contrivance

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Short Term 12 opens in theaters Friday.

Three stars

Short Term 12 Brie Larson, John Gallagher Jr., Kaitlyn Dever. Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton. Rated R. Opens Friday.

The somewhat mysterious title of Short Term 12 refers to a foster-care center that houses troubled kids for (usually) less than a year before they’re either released or transferred. Writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton based the film on his own experiences working in such a facility, and his hands-on knowledge is evident in the wealth of details this absorbing but frustrating indie drama offers, with special emphasis on the emotionally turbulent relationships between Short Term 12’s counselors—many of them barely out of childhood themselves—and their charges. Brie Larson, in particular, does a remarkable job of making compassion seem both heartfelt and part of a job description, turning in one of the year’s best performances.

It’s a shame, then, that Cretton felt the need to create an overly tidy parallel between Larson’s head counselor, who turns out to have an abusive past of her own, and the traumatized teen girl (Kaitlyn Dever) she takes under her wing. It’s not necessary for a character’s actions to be explained by some convenient backstory; that kind of hackneyed coincidence only undermines the very credibility Short Term 12 and its cast work so hard to establish. Leave that nonsense to Hollywood, indie filmmakers.

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