“Authenticity” is the word that comes foremost to my mind when I think back on watching Short Term 12. Everything about this film felt like it was real. It takes place primarily at a foster-care facility, meaning it involves a bunch of troubled teens and their supervisors. All of it felt like it could have been a documentary. The attention to detail at the facility, the spot-on performances, the way it portrays each character’s problems and the way that deal with them — all of this feels genuine. It’s as if we’re really at a foster-care facility.

That’s especially tough given the potential melodrama of this material. This isn’t a happy film but it’s not a wholly depressing one, either. It doesn’t force a response from us; we give it freely. It is enchanting and engrossing and works on a number of levels. It’s intellectually stimulating, emotionally compelling, and provides insight into a life that you likely don’t think about all that often, unless you were someone who went through “the system.”

Our lead is Grace (Brie Larson), who is one of the supervisors at the foster-care facility. She’s dating a co-worker, Mason (John Gallagher, Jr.), and she’s well-liked by the teenagers. She’s tough but fair, and kind if that’s what’s required. There are outbursts but they’re rarely directed at the staff; they’re just general displays of anger or sadness. It all seems to be going just fine — or as fine as it can be — until the introduction of a new teenager, Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), who reminds Grace of herself at that age.

The plot is slow-moving and relatively predictable. You can see where the film is going before it can, and its few twists are one’s you’ll likely see coming. It works in spite of this. It brings complex characters whose layers are slowly peeled back. Even though we can predict their actions that’s only because of how well they’re characterized and how real they feel. People infrequently do things for no reason; there is usually a reason behind their action, and because the portraits painted here are so strong, we understand where a character is headed and it makes sense once that happens.

The secondary characters are almost as deep as the main ones. One of the teenagers, Marcus (Keith Stanfield), is about to turn 18 and therefore have to leave the facility. One heartbreaking scene has Marcus rap with Mason doing the beats. What begins an aggressive but harmless rap soon turns into a powerful look into his soul. Stanfield and Gallagher, Jr. both bring it in this scene. Watching the latter’s character slowly realize how personal the song is happens at the same point the audience does. Keith Stanfield’s rap is also tremendous.

And that’s just one scene in a film of dozens that are almost as great. There’s an incredible amount of emotion floating around in Short Term 12, and while it doesn’t always come up, you can sense it’s there. These characters are so strong, both in terms of the writing and acting, that they feel just like real people. I mentioned earlier that the film feels like it could be a documentary and I’d like to reiterate that point. It comes across as real.

This is director Destin Cretton’s second crack at this subject matter. In 2008 he directed a short film, also titled Short Term 12. It had similar subject matter but a few key differences. His changes have paid off and he has created a fantastic motion picture with his feature-length Short Term 12. Having a director prove talent and a project’s potential with a short film has proved a sound strategy in the past. District 9 was an expanded short film, too, for example.

Brie Larson is the center around whom Short Term 12 revolves, and the range of emotions she’s forced to go through here allows her to showcase her full acting ability. She has to be strong, vulnerable, unsure of herself, and overjoyed — sometimes all over the course of one scene. Her conversations with Kaitlyn Dever yank at the heartstrings.

The film wouldn’t work if it tried melodrama. It would feel forced and unrealistic. It has its moments of levity. It has characters who go through both joy and sorrow. It doesn’t stay in the darkness and negativity for its entire running time. I think that’s ultimately one of the reasons it works as well as it does. I mean, its great characters, dialogue, and performances all help, but it manages to be as truly moving as it is because it doesn’t attempt to be a 90-minute tearjerker. You’re likely to shed a few tears — or at least struggle to hold them back — but it’s not an onslaught of sadness and depression.

Short Term 12 is a fantastic movie. It’s sweet, smart, and provides a glimpse into a situation you don’t necessarily think about every day. It has very real, very human, characters, and doesn’t attempt to manipulate its audience by falling into melodrama. It has tremendous performances, more than a handful of great scenes, and throughout its entirety remains powerful and emotionally compelling. You don’t see films like this one every day. It’s too good to miss.