“Short Term 12” is a small miracle of a film. Writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton takes one of society’s most serious subjects – its abused and neglected children – and puts them in a movie with so much heart and humanity you almost forget to feel sorry for them.

That is no easy thing when the setting is an “at-risk teens” group foster home – the kind of underfunded institutional minefield that, in the wrong film, could be milked, manipulated and exploited beyond all real-life recognition. Here, it is not painted as a place of last resort, even though it is. Cretton’s group house is a safe haven, a real substitute home staffed by people who genuinely care.

Brie Larson (“United States of Tara”) and John Gallagher Jr. (“The Newsroom”) star as Grace and Mason, members of the home’s line staff, the nonprofessional counselors tasked with keeping the young residents safe. They aren’t the kids’ therapists or their social workers; they are their guardians and their guards.

Part of the reason the movie works so well is that Cretton doesn’t fill the home with kids from Hollywood’s troubled youth playbook – the rebel, the weakling, the wiseguy, the fat kid. These are real teens. They want to watch TV and do their homework. They play with model toys and put pictures of their absent families on their walls.

They are a real community. Their self-awareness jumps up and shouts early on, when a new counselor introduces himself during the morning meeting.

(This naive counselor, by the way, is based on Cretton, who worked in a group home himself in his college years.)

“I took a year off school because I want to get a life experience,” Nate the newbie says. “I always wanted to work with underprivileged kids” – a term that doesn’t sit well with his audience.

Nate needs to learn from Grace, the young supervisor who handles her kids like a virtuoso, and the empathetic Mason, a former foster child himself. The two also are a couple, rounding out their personalities away from work and, again, not following a typical script.

Then Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) arrives. A troubled girl who, like Grace, likes to draw, Jayden brings to the surface things from her past that Grace has struggled to keep buried.

To tell more would be to tell too much, since the beauty of this movie is in how well big, dramatic things are handled in small, incredible ways. Like when one of the teens shares a rap he wrote with Mason. Full of anger and profanities directed at the world that abandoned him, the song ends with a powerful chorus:

“Look into my eyes so you know what it’s like / to live a life not knowing / what a normal life’s like.”

“Short Term 12” looks at those lives, and the strength and hope that survives in them. It’s a heckuva movie.

Short Term 12

3½ stars (Out of 4)

Starring: Brie Larson, John Gallagher Jr., Kaitlyn Dever and Keith Stanfield

Writer/director: Destin Daniel Cretton

Running time: 96 minutes

Rating: R for language and brief sexuality

The lowdown: A young counselor at a group home for at-risk teens leads by example, even as her past collides painfully with the present.

email: mmiller@buffnews.com

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