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Modest ‘Short Term 12’ may be one of the best films of the year

Despite its rather drab title, (I mean, really, “Short Term 12” is the best you could come up with?) and its unpromising subject matter, (a kind of halfway house for troubled kids,) this movie turns out to be one of the best of the year. What a pleasant surprise.

Short Term 12 is the non-descript name of the non-descript building that houses roughly a dozen at-risk kids. Grace is the 20-something supervisor who oversees the kids and the handful of other support staff who work there. It’s one of those thankless jobs that we can be thankful someone is willing to do.

Grace lives up to her name as she deals with crisis after crisis – sometimes gently, sometimes not. And sometimes her frustrations are not with her charges but with her superiors.

“Short Term 12” is a movie that has to be seen to be believed. Not because it’s so visually spectacular – it’s not that at all. It’s because any description of it makes it sound cliched and formulaic – you know, the selfless do-gooders who sacrifice their own lives to help each kid triumph over his own particular and trite psychological issues.

But this movie is so precisely written, carefully observed and so well-acted that no matter how predictable the overarching story may seem, it never feels that way. It’s so naturalistic that it plays more like a documentary than a dramatic fiction.

In a movie full of great small moments, one stands out. One of the girls reads a story to Grace, a story that she’s written and illustrated in a secret diary. It’s a children’s story about a nervous friendship between an octopus and a shark that is so striking in its originality and terror, it takes your breath away. Like the movie itself, that story is a quiet masterpiece. Profound in its simplicity and psychological insight.

“Short Term 12,” in its own modest way, sneaks up on you but boy does it pack an emotional wallop.

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