“Short Term 12” takes place in an isolated patch of space somewhere between suburbia and the inner city. It’s an island of lost children looking for a hand, any hand, to reach out of the shadows that life has cloaked them in, and pull them into the light. Sometimes just the touch itself is enough.

We are here in this foster care facility, where disturbed and damaged children are sent by other foster care facilities. Here, young caregivers, once lost children themselves, work with these children. It’s a kind of Peace Corps of the mind, formerly damaged children leading presently damaged kids through the briar patch of healing.

As we walk across the lawn of this facility, where there are no gates nor fences, we begin to meet the beautiful and wounded birds in this seemingly lovely bird cage. They come in all colors and sizes, each one with a dream, a nightmare. They can run if they choose. The staff is obligated to try to stop them, and there are a few funny chases to the gate, but once outside, the fugitives can’t be brought back.

Out there is the world. Most don’t run. Most stay, because despite the fact that it’s a “facility” — with rules and strict guidelines — they know that its invisible walls are guarded by people not much older nor different than they are and that these new strangers shine with love.

We meet the four top team members: Grace (future star Brie Larson) who seems to be tough and in control, but who will, by the end of the film, come out of her comfort zone to confront the not-so-dead phantoms of her past. There is, only a phone call away, one that comes at dawn’s light with news of the imminent release of her father from prison. Everyone here in this healing oasis has his or her story, phantom or secret.

Grace shares living space with her fiancee Mason (John Gallagher, Jr. of “Newsroom,” who is slowly and carefully building a major career), a chain smoking, fun-loving guy who knows how to connect with his flock of lost sheep. Mason pretends to be the staff jokester, but knows that his life without Grace, without her strength, her tight spot calm, could easily come unraveled when the future cold winds of reality blow.

A new staffer arrives, Nate, (Rami Malek) fresh faced and eager, like a Peace Corps volunteer looking for something to believe in. Nate will spend his first month — and our time with him — finding lost toys, vacuuming and dusting and eventually washing blood from a door and wall.

We get the full menu of the horrors of the mind: addiction, eating disorders, the sexual abuse from parents and strangers. Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), who suffers from moments of self mutilation, gives us a face like a May moon, with soft eyes slowly losing the glow of innocence. Her father “likes the belt,” and we will come with her to her moments of light. We meet Sammy (Alex Calloway), a boy who has gone to hide in a garden of the mind, where plush toys and tiny dolls protect him.

And there is Marcus, the one black boy in the arbor, who is never without his baseball cap and distrustful glances. Marcus has his open moments where he can exchange a joke, play a game. But then the wounds in his heart begin to ache and he remembers how his mother, a drug addict, put him out on the street to get her drugs.

Marcus is days, maybe hours, from completing his 12 months of the short term here, and will soon be back out in the asphalt jungle. As we watch, Marcus will come to a moment of despair and make a dangerous choice.

All of this, which could have easily become an HBO special about damaged children, is softened and dramatized by Mason’s and Grace’s relationship. Grace discovers that she is pregnant, and now both will have to face up to a world of adult choices without a state rule book to guide them. Near the end, a happy party lights up the story, when Mason goes to the anniversary of his foster parents.

“Short Term 12′” begins and ends with a comic chase, a faux attempt to flee and a resolution or two that brightens the darkness.

Writer director Destin Daniel Cretton makes no attempt to color that darkness or to falsely brighten the day. He gives us a story that lives in every town and city, one big enough to warrant more involvement from a government focused on wars and money and small enough to slip silently to the back pages of our newspapers.

J.P. Devine is a former stage and screen actor.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: