Debut writer-director Destin Cretton continues this spikey tradition but introduces a poignant sense of hope amid the intitutionalised asperity and has in Brie Larson one of the most cherishable break-out performances of the year.
She plays Grace, a no-nonsense supervisor at a foster facility - the Short Term 12 - for at-risk teenagers whose tough tenderness belies her young age. One minute, she's presenting one inmate with a home-made bracelet, the next she's checking under the mattresses for syringes or worse.
Providing crucial support is her co-worker and boyfriend Mason (Gallagher Jr, excellent) a dweebish rock who happily engages with inmates, joining one in an ad hoc rapping session on the bongoes and hurtling after another who's making a desperate break for freedom.
However, Grace's inability to open up emotionally has put a strain on the relationship and the arrival of new girl Jayden (Dever), whose self-destructive behaviour has led to her being passed from home to home, piles the pressure on as Grace recognises herself in the damaged waif.
Unsentimental and gloriously free of the cliches associated with the troubled teen template, this is a gently life-affirming chronicle of unqualified kindness raised to another level by Larson's subtly detailed performance.
That those doing the caring have been through the mill themselves (Grace's has emerged from an adolescent hell while Mason was raised by foster parents) makes their selflessness all the more notable and encourages a note of optimism.
Larson is one to watch.