To say Destin Daniel Cretton’s Short Term 12 is powerful, would be an understatement. He balances a story that tells the brutal realities of at-risk kids but with an undercurrent of hope. It’s a tough act but he’s able to pull it off with the help of a fantastic lead in Brie Larson, who carries the weight of the film’s problems on her shoulders.

Larson is Grace who, along with Mason (John Gallagher) — also her boyfriend –, work at a short term facility for troubled youths, hence the film’s title. The audience’s cipher is Nate, (Rami Malek) a new hire who’s unsure of how to handle the complexities of the kids and adds some humor to boot. But it’s Grace who is the real focus of the story and who has to deal with her own unexpected issues, namely the fact that she is unexpectedly pregnant, in addition to the very real and complex problems of the kids she works with.

First there’s Marcus (Keith Stanfield) who is about to turn 18 and leave but is having obvious issues, much like a long time prisoner would, adapting to life on the outside. A normally quiet boy he begins acting out and though Grace, Mason and their co-worker’s attempts to help him, it illustrates how the job is more than just a nine-to-fiver. It’s the type of job that’s hard to leave at the door and the emotional toll is beginning to wear on Grace, especially as she receives the news of her pregnancy. Her turmoil is manifested through her constant picking of her thumb and is mirrored through a new kid Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), who is an established cutter.

As Grace attempts to open Jayden up, as she does with Marcus and the rest of the kids, she begins exhibiting the same behaviours. Unable to open up to Mason, the realities of kids like Jayden and Marcus start to weigh on her in a way she doesn’t know how to handle. The irony becomes all too clear as she struggles to make a connection with Jayden, one Mason is currently failing at with Grace. For such a young director — the film is only Cretton’s second feature — he shows incredible insight into the cyclical nature of troubled youths. Even though Grace is well versed in working with kids who are accustomed to putting up shields, she herself can’t escape from doing the same.

It’s a powerfully realistic film that doesn’t shy away from the awfulness these kids have to endure. Not only are they dealing with very severe issues, they must do so in a whitewashed facility with dozens of other kids as their audience. But Cretton isn’t tryint to establish a pessimistic view of the system, it’s quite the opposite. He’s not asking why the system is broken, or even saying that it is for that matter. Instead he’s just showing the complexity of these kids’ situations but marking them with some hope.

Grace, Mason, Nate and everyone else who works at the center really does care for the kids but he acknowledges there’s only so much they can do. After all, they’re only human. Short Term 12 demonstrates that much of the struggle for these kids is internal, and that’s an even tougher pill to swallow while young. Grace and Mason can create a safe environment for Jayden, Marcus and the rest, but it’s ultimately their battle and they make the final decisions. It may not seem like such a positive message, and perhaps it isn’t, but it’s one that Cretton steeps in optimiism.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5