Jan. 29 2014 12:00 AM

‘Short Term 12’ follows the unsung heroes of social work

You have to be tough as nails, both physically and emotionally, to be a social worker. On any given day, you could have to wrestle a frenzied teen to the ground or mop up the blood from a suicide attempt. The indie drama “Short Term 12,” part of the East Lansing Film Series at Studio C!, believably depicts the highs and the lows of a group of college-age workers helping emotionally damaged teens. The film also works as an ode to the resiliency of the human spirit and the transformative power of art — but, you know, in a cool way.

Most of the film is set in a California residential facility that’s run like a well-oiled low-security prison. Rules are strictly enforced: bedroom doors must remain open at all times, no swearing, no sharp objects. Risk is high, pay is low and the staff is constantly at odds with a legal system that’s slashing their funding even as it limits the actual care they can give. It seems a thankless, brutal profession, but Grace (Brie Larson), the facility’s alpha female counselor, has got this down to a science.

Her wards range in age from 11 to 17, most of whom constantly test her limits like the raptors in “Jurassic Park” test the electrified fences, testing for weaknesses. Grace calmly, deftly maintains boundaries with the skill and intelligence of someone twice her age, yet her relative youth allows her to connect in a unique way with even the most withdrawn residents. She seems too good to be true … at first.

But as Grace’s layers begin to reveal themselves, she turns out to be just as wounded. Her relationship with fellow counselor Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) is in dire straits because of the painful secret she’s keeping from him. On top of that, her own past is beginning to haunt her after the arrival of a new girl, Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), whose personality and history mirror her own.

Writer/director Destin Crettin coaxes intense, natural performances from all the actors, including those without any actual dialogue. He also manages to inject a vibrant sense of humor into this other wise dark material, defying all genres.

Is it a drama? A teen movie? A romantic comedy? Incredibly, it manages to be all of the above. This is Crettin’s first narrative feature (based on an earlier short film that won top honors at Sundance), and he shows a gift for showing, not telling. The handheld camera work gives the film a documentary-like look, which, thankfully, softens up even the harshest moments. Anything “cleaner” would have seemed fake, somehow even to the fictional teens in the film, who can smell fake a mile away.

Film depictions of emotionally damaged teenagers are usually limited to either unredeemable sociopaths or third act soul resurrections where abused kids learn to (sniff) let themselves be loved. “Short Term 12” rises far above such maudlin representations of the real-life pain suffered by so many abused and abandoned young people. Objectivist poet Carl Rakosi wrote, “I fell in love with social work, and that was my undoing as a poet.” Walking out of this film, you may have a better understanding of why social work remains such a powerful calling — and how crucial it is.

“Short Term 12” is part of the East Lansing Film Series, and plays exclusively at Studio C! in Okemos through Feb. 20.