BRATTLEBORO

"Short Term 12" (Destin Daniel Cretton, 96 min., U.S., drama) will close the two-week Brattleboro Film Festival on Thursday at 8:30 p.m., at the Latchis Theatre

It is not surprising that Brattleboro Film Festival audiences chose "Short Term 12" as this year’s ‘Best in Fest" winner. Not that the choice was easy since the 2013 lineup of 30 films truly represented the best of cinema today.

The ethos and characteristics of "Short Term 12" stand out, reflecting the vision of the festival itself: A focus on great storytelling, characters who exist outside mainstream comfort zones, a place you haven’t been before and an all-too-human drama where creativity and humor cut through a painful reality. Add an off-beat perspective on a vexing social problem, a dash of the transformative effect one human can have on another (on the world!) and you’ve got a BFF winner. "Short Term 12" has all of that, and more.

Up-and-coming director and writer Destin Daniel Cretton explores the complex character of Grace, a group leader at a "short term" residence for troubled teens who isn’t much older than her charges. Grace faces tough choices as her relationship with her partner and co-worker Mason deepens just as a young client appears who conjures the ghosts of Grace’s past.

Cretton worked at just such a facility, and the dialogue rings clear every moment as we are let into the lives of these workers and kids through powerful vignettes, brilliantly acted. The film is achieving real Oscar buzz for both Best Actress and Best Screenplay: it’s easy to see why.

Brie Larson breaths blood and bones into a Grace who shifts and grows into a person better able to love before our eyes. Larson and John Gallager Jr. (who won a Tony for his performance in the Broadway hit "Spring Awakenings") bring the intimacy of their theatrical experience to this big screen love affair and so does the rest of this superlative ensemble cast.

First time actor Keith Stanfield’s performance as Marcus is the real standout in the film. A gentle soul with a sharp tongue about to "age out" from the residence, Marcus’ rap -- "Look into my eyes so you know what it’s like/to live a life not knowing what a normal life’s like" (co-written by Stanfield and Cretton and gaining its own following) cuts to the core and points to the redemptive power of expression.

The striking physicality of Brett Pawlak’s cinematography transports you fast and deep into this closed system -- like Marcus’ fishbowl -- the hands, heads and limbs of kids cast aside, those who care for them, growing into an adulthood where the deck is stacked against them.

Despite the clinical setting, humanity is revealed and humor -- deftly timed and devastatingly juxtaposed -- is what makes this film so incredibly nuanced and enjoyable. In a recent interview Cretton said, "humor Š is a necessary part of that environment, and a necessary part of survival there ... if I didn’t incorporate those lighter and hopeful moments in this movie, it wouldn’t, in my view, be an authentic portrayal of what I experienced there."

It’s interesting to note that the top-four audience rated films of the 2013 BFF all featured strong female leads -- "Maidentrip" (2nd), "Alice Walker: Truth in Beauty" (3rd) and "Hannah Arendt" (4th) -- and were split between documentaries and dramas. All were made by women, except "Short Term 12" whose male director created an unforgettable female lead and a film that is a perfect BFF Best in Fest.