An indie drama set in a foster care facility for at-risk teenagers carries with it a huge potential for mawkishness and coming-of- age cliché. But Destin Cretton’s SXSW Grand Jury Prize winner veers well clear of both, building to its emotional highs and lows with a matter-of-fact naturalism that borders on brutal.
Brie Larson gives a brilliant, brittle performance as Grace, a facility supervisor whose supreme competence masks her own unresolved demons. Her co-worker and boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) is ready to settle down, but there’s something gnawing at Grace, whose equilibrium is disturbed by the arrival of a prickly new teenager, Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever).
Cretton’s understated script plays extensively on the very idea of storytelling, its role as a tool in counselling and its power both to obscure and to expose painful truths.
The film’s biggest emotional lightning bolt comes as Jayden, played with striking nuance by newcomer Dever, tells Grace a seemingly gentle story with a deeper, deeply unsettling meaning. The raw connection between these two young women feels rare and vital and exciting, and its authenticity is what gives the occasionally predictable third act its cathartic power.
Other supporting characters are less well served – very few of the facility’s residents are fleshed out beyond glimpses, although Keith Stanfield’s budding rapper Marcus is a poignant exception. Cretton makes no concessions to sentiment, drawing heavily on his real experiences to portray this world with frankness and passion. A frequently painful but ultimately hopeful gem.
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