August 23, 2013 at 04:00 AM EDT

Yes, there really is more to summer than superheroes, explosions, and car chases. Owen Gleiberman offers his take on a recent crop of (mostly) refreshing alternatives to the megamovies.

POPCORN IS YUMMY, but if that were all you ate, your health would be in trouble. The same holds true for popcorn movies. Ingest too many of them and you’re left with a bloated, more-is-less feeling. Lucky for us, the summer movie season includes a nutritious alternative: small, tasty films that fly under the blockbuster radar. Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine is a splendid recent example, and more are now in theaters. They aren’t all home runs, but at least two of them are well worth seeking out.

The best indie movies give you the feeling that their directors not only wanted but needed to make them. That’s certainly true of Destin Daniel Cretton’s Short Term 12 (1 hr., 36 mins., R), a drama of astonishing emotional purity that has the novel setting of a group foster home. It’s about a crew of teenagers, deeply troubled and out of sorts, who live in drab institutional rooms and try to patch their community of fellow foster children into a makeshift family. The situation has a built-in heartbreak, but Cretton doesn’t milk it. Instead, he lets each character strike a note of lived-in reality that is rarely found on screen. Short Term 12 lures you into passion and trauma: the staggeringly hopeless diary-of-a-lost-boy rap performed by Marcus (Keith Stanfield), the moodiest and most brilliant of the kids, or the journey from self-mutilation to shaky redemption undergone by Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), who masks her innocence in attitude. The home is run by counselors who are former foster children themselves. Brie Larson, as the caring but tormented Grace (who’s pregnant and doesn’t know if she has the faith to have her baby), and John Gallagher Jr., as her gentle-dweeb fellow worker Mason (who fears his love can’t save her), show you what emotionally naked acting is all about.

When is a mumblecore movie about middle-class hipster love not a mumblecore movie? When it stars Olivia Wilde and Anna Kendrick. In Drinking Buddies (1 hr., 30 mins., R; available on VOD), Joe Swanberg’s disarming ramble of a romantic comedy, Wilde plays Kate, who works for a microbrewery run by Luke (Jake Johnson), her flirtatious and touchy-feely best pal. Both of them are in relationships: Kate with the dour, bookish Chris (Ron Livingston); Luke with the perky Jill (Kendrick), who adores him but isn’t sure he’ll go the distance. Neither are we. Drinking Buddies keeps us off balance about the vital question of who should be with whom. Each time we’re sure we know, Swanberg turns the tables, and does it with small shadings of talk and body language that give the movie its rich-brew bohemian flavor, even when what little plot there is just sits there. The actors all blend terrifically, making this the film equivalent of great hang time. (Swanberg also appears in You’re Next; see page 48.)

Jane (Keri Russell), the winsomely deluded heroine of Austenland (1 hr., 37 mins., PG-13), is so obsessed with Jane Austen that she spends most of her bank account on a trip to Austenland, a theme park in the British countryside. The participants stay in a splendid mansion, dress in empire-waist frocks, and engage in saucy chitchat with servants and suitors, who are actually actors hired to flirt and maybe more (which is both very un-Austen-like and condescending, given that the women are basically paying to have affairs with gigolos in cravats). Produced by Stephenie Meyer and directed by Jerusha Hess (who co-wrote Napoleon Dynamite), Austenland is a one-joke movie, but the joke carries a twinge of wit. Keri Russell plays Jane’s scatterbrained romanticism with such underhanded charm that she makes the laughs pertly knowing even when they come at Jane’s expense.

The Grandmaster (1 hr., 48 mins., PG-13) sounds like a kick-ass banquet. It’s the story of Ip Man, the Wing Chun martial-arts legend who trained Bruce Lee, and it was directed by the heady sensualist Wong Kar-wai. Tony Leung plays Ip Man with his old-movie charisma and reserve, but the film, despite a few splendid fights, is a biohistorical muddle that never finds its center. Maybe that’s because — big mistake! — it never gets to Bruce Lee. Short Term 12: A Drinking Buddies: B+ Austenland: B- The Grandmaster: C+

In Short Term 12, each character strikes a note of lived-in reality that is rarely found on screen. The movie lures you into passion and trauma.

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