In recent months, many of my correspondents have drawn attention to my blog’s name. “Why is it called ‘Movie Curiosities,’” they ask, “if you mostly write about mainstream films?” Though I don’t really care enough about the name to explain it or change it, the matter did serve as an important reminder.

There are cynics who say that the film industry is creatively bankrupt, content to rehash the same franchises over and over again. I’ve never agreed with that. I know for a fact that mainstream releases can still be awesome, and there’s always a wealth of quality to be found in the arthouses. Truly great cinema is still being made, but it needs to be tracked down. And it’s worth the effort.

I first started blogging as a means of expressing this philosophy. I didn’t just want to bitch and moan about the lack of creativity in Hollywood, I wanted to try and do something about it. I remember that feeling of going to some totally obscure movie I’ve never heard of, only to come out singing its praises and asking why more people haven’t seen it. Though I’ve never completely left the arthouse circuit here in Portland (see my reviews of The Spectacular Now and In A World… written in the past few weeks), it’s been a long time since I’ve felt that rush of discovering a true hidden gem.

With that in mind, I stepped into Short Term 12 expecting to find that old familiar thrill. The film did not disappoint.

The film is named after a sort of safe house for kids who are… um… I think “displaced” is probably the best word to use here. The children at Short Term 12 have all been through poverty, suicide attempts, physical abuse, sexual abuse, drug addictions, just about any kind of trauma you’d care to name. For one reason or another, courts have ruled that these kids don’t have a proper home, either because their parents are dead or unfit to raise a family. So the kids go to places like Short Term 12 until they turn eighteen or the county figures out what to do with them, whichever comes first.

The kids of course play a huge part in this movie, though the focus is primarily on the staff. And they’re also very interesting in their own way. After all, these people are responsible for all of these damaged children, but the laws seem to be quite vague about what they can and cannot do. I think our protagonist herself put it best: “We’re not their parents and we’re not their therapists, we’re just here to create a safe environment” (I’m paraphrasing, but that’s the basic idea). In theory, the staff members are just glorified babysitters, there to take care of the child for a little while until a more permanent solution is found. In practice, of course, kids often end up staying for years at a time. So the staff inevitably start settling into the role of surrogate parents, with results that naturally get complicated.

In this case, our protagonist is Grace (Brie Larson, giving an awards-worthy performance), the de facto den mother of Short Term 12. Grace may still be a young twenty-something woman, but she works and acts like a seasoned pro. She seems to have found a sweet balance between nurturing the kids while refusing to take any of their shit. Everyone likes her and everyone respects her, though of course she goes home emotionally drained.

In point of fact, we learn early on that Grace has gotten herself knocked up. When she first hears this news, Grace immediately makes an appointment to have the child aborted without a second thought. At first, it seems that Grace has already seen so many children with awful lives that she doesn’t want to bring another one into the world. The truth, however, is that Grace has a litany of her own childhood traumas. Grace thought she had put the past well behind her, until Jayden shows up.

Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) is a girl who’s shuttled off to Short Term 12 while her parents’ divorce is getting settled. Jayden herself is extremely prickly and antisocial, so of course she doesn’t give off any sign that something’s wrong back home. But of course Grace sees all the signs, because she was there herself once upon a time. So the two end up bonding over comparing self-inflicted razor cuts, with results that are touching, heartbreaking, and disturbing in equal measure.

Another prominent resident is Marcus, played by Keith Stanfield. Marcus is upset because he’s turning 18 soon, which means that he’ll have to leave the compound in a couple of weeks. Naturally, this opens up an entire host of doubts and fears in him. He’s afraid of being out on his own, he’s afraid that becoming an adult will mean that he’ll become like his abusive parents, he’s afraid that the (literal) scars of his childhood haven’t faded away, the list goes on and on.

I wish I could adequately express how amazing the dialogue and the acting are in this film. All of these characters feel like real people with real problems. The exchanges are all beautifully clever in how they address the various elephants in the room, often using humor and wisecracks to take the edge off. That’s something I really want to express about this movie: It’s not all doom and gloom. The subject matter is incredibly dark, and the film is gutsy enough to go into some very dark places, but there’s always an underlying optimism that things will get better. Moreover, the brilliant dialogue exchanges help reinforce the theme that no trauma is too much for a good helping hand.

It’s hard for me to describe how clever and deep the film is without getting into spoilery examples. However, I can say that the film often uses the kids’ emotional outlets as a strong and effective crutch. Multiple times throughout the movie, we see the kids expressing themselves through music, art, games, writing, or just beating the crap out of an inflatable toy. This was a move of genius, as it allows us to glimpse the characters’ minds in an honest and engaging way without getting too preachy. Moreover, when other characters get to join in — through supporting vocals, passing a ball, sitting by and listening, etc. — that’s another way in which the characters can help each other out with their problems. Plus, by giving the characters some catharsis, the audience gets catharsis as well. I can’t begin to overstate what a brilliant move that was.

Another source of comic relief is Nate (Rami Malek), a new staff member at Short Term 12. The guy is just learning the ropes, so of course he commits the occasional faux pas. The other characters make fun of him, but never to a malicious degree. It’s all in good fun and everyone means well, so it’s okay. Of course, it also helps that Nate really wants to make a strong impression with this job and help the kids in any way possible. I mean, when we see Nate on his knees cleaning up the blood left by one of the residents… goddamn.

Last but not least, there’s Mason (John Gallagher Jr.). He’s another one of Grace’s coworkers, though it’s an open secret that the two of them have been dating for the past few years. Mason is a very funny guy, with a (highly embellished) story for any occasion, so he’s naturally a hit with the kids and the other staff members alike. Though of course, there’s always the question of whether Grace will tell him about the baby, how he’ll react to it, and whether or not he’ll want to carry out the abortion.

I don’t even have the words to describe how much I liked this movie, though I do have two problems with it. The minor problem is that there’s a character who attempts suicide, and that plot point was resolved a little too neatly for my liking.

The major problem is that the cinematography is FUCKING ATROCIOUS. I get that the film was shot entirely on a handheld camera for the purpose of cinema verite, but this was going way too far. I don’t think there were five seconds in this whole picture when the camera stood still. The camera bobbed and weaved so drastically that I could barely stand to look at the screen.

(Full disclosure: Maybe it’s the cold I’m getting over, or maybe it was a possible case of food poisoning with lunch today. In any case, this is only the second time a film has made me so motion-sick that I had to go throw up immediately after.)

It’s a damn shame that Short Term 12 has such horrible camerawork, because this is otherwise a sterling film. The subject matter is new and interesting, the cast is top-notch across the board, and every single character is fascinating. In particular, Brie Larson deserves every last accolade she gets and so much more. Best of all, the dark subject matter is approached in a way that’s honest and heartfelt, yet also hopeful and charming and engaging. Hell, I didn’t even mind turning away from the screen all that much: The dialogue and the performances were so damned good that I could have listened to this picture as a radio play and come away satisfied.

I can’t recommend this movie strongly enough. Seek this one out as soon as you get the chance.

For more Movie Curiosities, check out my blog. I’m also on Facebook and Twitter.