Just three minutes into the exceptional Short Term 12, a breathless escape attempt occurs. The runner is Sammy, a scrawny redhead who’s trying to make his regularly scheduled dash from the state-run foster care facility where he lives. But before he can make it off the grounds, three counselors tackle him and literally bring him back down to Earth. The film—an absorbing and effortlessly natural portrait of life in the foster care system—plants its stake in the issues at play in that runaway scene: forgotten teens stuck in a loop of near-escapes, and the young adults who catch them and keep them safe. Writer-director Destin Cretton beautifully captures the details of this institutional safety net for kids who lack the parental support that should be their birthright. If that all sounds too much like a very special episode of a CW drama, know it doesn’t play that way. There’s an almost documentary-like quality to Short Term 12 that immediately makes the audience trust the narrative and succumb willingly when it ventures into emotionally charged places.

Multiple theaters. See showtimes for listings..