Besides being a good band name, Chekhov's Gun is the principle protecting cumulative narrative coherence: A gun introduced in the first act must go off by the end of the third. In the first act of Short Term 12, the studiously humane drama written and directed by Destin Cretton, we're instantly introduced to number of figurative guns, all of them human, most of them pre-adult, all packed with explosive secrets.
Our setting: a residential facility for high-risk kids, overseen by a staff not far from childhood themselves. Leading the charge is Grace (Brie Larson), a twentysomething of remarkable passion and self-possession, who devotes her days to cleaning up the messes after the facility's human guns go off. And go off they do—these are kids who have experienced things that are left unspecified by the movie, but still have the power to inspire emotional explosions, from shrieking to cutting to deadly mayhem. Helping Grace is Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), her live-in boyfriend and fellow counselor, who buffers Grace's no-bullshit approach with an avuncular-stoner vibe.
From top to bottom, Short Term 12 is laced with moments of deep, messy humanity that will take your breath away. That these moments are found in a milieu packed with the potential for mawkish clichés—see the handful of scenes wherein Grace and Mason must crack the shell of a hardened-by-hurt kid—is a testament to the skill and talent of writer/ director Cretton, who has a great knack with actors and idiosyncratic detail. In lesser hands, Grace and Mason's arts-and-crafts date night might've been nothing more than shorthand for hipsterism, but in Short Term 12, it touches on everything from the shittiness of their wages to their ongoing sexual dysfunction.
The film's not perfect—the emotional explosions sometimes land with a whiff of plot-forwarding expedience, and Grace is saddled with a late-breaking twist that feels far from the reality Cretton and his cast have worked so hard to create. But it's a good, tough movie, and Brie Larson gives a performance that should win awards.