'Short Term' treatment: Destin Daniel Cretton directs personal drama of foster-care counselors


During the course of the 2013 summer movie season, audiences have been exposed to some fantastical onscreen worlds, from a distant, doomed planet from whence a sole super-powered son is rocketed to safety, to a place of higher learning populated by cartoonish creatures that learn how to go bump in the night, to a near-future Hong Kong where giant sea monsters battle giant, man-powered robots amidst the ocean waves. But one of the season’s richest, if decidedly more down-to-earth, cinematic universes can be visited via the August Cinedigm release Short Term 12, which sets moviegoers down inside a realm few of them have likely ever visited in person: an American foster-care facility, where at-risk youth are watched over and cared for by counselors who are frequently not much older than their charges. No matter how alien this environment might be for viewers walking into the theatre, the film renders it relatable via an attention to detail and overall sense of care that let the audience know that the person behind the camera understands the environment he’s filming inside and out.

And that’s indeed the case with Short Term 12 director Destin Daniel Cretton, who spent two years in between undergraduate college and film school working in a 24-hour foster-care facility. “I stumbled into the job, because I couldn’t get a job anywhere else and they were hiring,” the Maui-born filmmaker remembers, while sitting in the café inside New York’s Angelika Film Center—his first time visiting one of the city’s most famous hotspots for indie cinema. “Basically, anybody who could do a decent interview and had a college degree could get hired there. I went through two weeks of training and started working while I was still training. It’s hard to describe how terrifying it was for me; I had never been exposed to the type of pain that comes with witnessing the sad results of bad parenting and neglect. It was really difficult, but it was also really beautiful and fun. I had never laughed so much or learned so much about myself. In the end, after working there for two years, it became a life-changing experience.”

Despite the personal impact of that job, Cretton didn’t emerge from his stint in the foster-care world ready and raring to depict it onscreen. The notion of exploring that experience in a dramatic context didn’t cross his mind until well into his film-school education, when he finally felt capable of distilling all the thoughts and feelings from that period of his life into a movie. The initial result was a 2008 short film also entitled Short Term 12, which depicted an ordinary day at a group home through the eyes of an older male counselor named Denim (played by character actor Brad William Henke). Filmed in just three days, the short was accepted into several prestigious film festivals including Sundance, where it won the Short Filmmaking Award.

Encouraged by Short Term 12’s success on the festival circuit, Cretton set about trying to adapt the short into his first feature. But the process wasn’t without its hiccups, both creative and financial. On the creative side, the writer-director quickly realized that simply expanding the short to fill a feature-length runtime—as many advised him to do—was an approach that wouldn’t fly. “The short was not meant to be expanded,” he says now. “Everything that I was trying felt forced—I felt like I was plagiarizing something that shouldn’t be plagiarized.”
Eventually, Cretton made the decision to jettison both the main character and the general arc of the short and start over from scratch, drawing on his own experiences as well as interviews conducted with other counselors to gather new material. “Some of those scenes in the movie are very close to things that happened to me and a lot are stories I got through my interviews. In fact, some are taken straight from my transcript and put into a monologue. Honestly, I could have made seven features; there are so many stories and so many levels to that world. There are endless things you can tell.” (Ultimately, the only thing that unites the two versions of Short Term 12—apart from the setting—is the presence of Keith Stanfield, who plays one of the at-risk kids in the facility in both versions, Mark in the short and Marcus in the feature.)

The myriad storytelling possibilities inherent in the world Cretton is depicting can be seen reflected in the film’s opening scenes, which present the facility at which much of the film is set from a variety of perspectives, from a new counselor (Rami Malek) who is still learning the ropes—a character that the director confirms is something of a surrogate for him when he first started working with at-risk teens—to several of the kids. It’s only after this prolonged introduction that Cretton moves his main character into the spotlight—Grace (Brie Larson), the facility’s dedicated, dogged supervisor. Although this line of work is often transitional, Grace and her equally enthusiastic co-worker and boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher, Jr.)—who himself comes from a foster-care background—seem intent on making it their life’s work. But all the energy Grace expends on healing the kids in her care leaves very little left over for her to heal her own emotional wounds, which are the result of past childhood trauma that bubbles back up to the surface after a teenage girl enters the facility suffering from problems that hit a little too close to home.

Cretton credits the character of Grace with being the creative key that eventually unlocked the feature version of Short Term 12 in his mind. “It was a challenge for me, because I’d never written anything from a female perspective. But the curiosity of seeing everything through Grace's eyes made everything feel new—it opened the world up and made everything feel fresh. I also knew the journey that she was going to go on and that was enough structure for me to know where I wanted her to end up. I also knew that, similar to my own experience, she’s in an environment where every person she comes into contact with can and should force her more and more to deal with this thing she's avoiding. I wanted every scene to be about her trying to help these kids, but have it continually backfire, to have it do something to her. She’s trying to help somebody, but the point of the scene is to reveal something more about her and her character. And that was a reflection of my own experience. I was very naïve when I walked into that place; I thought on some level that I'm going to help some of these people, that I'm going to be their savior, and that's not it at all. That's actually a very unhealthy way to connect with another human being. Instead, what I found was that the kids were helping me more than I was helping them. So many times, one of them correcting me in how I was viewing them or their situation and calling out my bullshit was life-changing and revealed the intense wisdom that was in these kids.

“Especially if you don’t watch it closely, it is easy for this movie to be labeled as yet another movie about white people taking care of non-white people,” Cretton continues. “I'm sure we could have that argument, even if I totally disagree with it. I feel that if anybody is helping anybody in this movie, it’s the kids. They're usually giving advice to the main character, who is a white female, and if anyone is learning something, it's her. I think you see throughout the movie that the kids are growing up and learning things primarily on their own. So I see this as a movie of people learning how to love each other by treating each other with equal respect.”

Complaints about a perceived racial imbalance in the film also overlook the fact that, if anything, Short Term 12 depicts the world of this particular foster-care facility as being a model for the kind of post-racial culture that remains frustratingly out of reach in wider American society. Although they hail from many different backgrounds, there are no divisions amongst these kids or the counselors that are in any way based on race. Indeed, the film could be viewed as a hopeful sign that the younger generation has moved beyond such outdated prejudices.

While Cretton says that the absence of racial tension in part mirrors his own experience working in the foster-care field, he’s quick to add that it’s not necessarily true across the board. “Unfortunately, there are still a ton of racist kids. My own experience is that sometimes there would be a kid who was racist, and he’d be blatantly so, but that wasn’t the norm. For the most part, there was a shared respect, because when they looked at each other, they understood what everybody had gone through to a certain extent. There was a bit of a ‘We’re all in this together’ feel. And in this world I created, I was conscious about showing what I think is an equal truth, in that there are a lot of kids where [racism] is just not part of their brain. When a kid is being a punk to another kid in the movie, it’s just because he’s being a punk. He’s going to call him an asshole, not a racial slur.”

After penning a feature-length script he was happy with, Cretton set about the task of getting the movie financed and soon discovered that, as he only half-jokingly puts it, “It’s difficult to find someone to invest in a movie about troubled teenagers.” Early on, he did find a partner in producer Asher Goldstein of Traction Media, who had seen the short, read Cretton’s subsequent feature draft and agreed to help him find the money to make it. “We went through a number of instances where somebody would say, ‘We’re going to do this! No, we’re not.’ They’d be returning your phone calls and all of a sudden they weren’t.”

One of the complaints that Cretton repeatedly heard from potential investors was his lack of a feature directing credit, a problem he solved after his Short Term 12 script won a Nicholl Fellowship, a prestigious screenwriting competition held by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Taking the $30,000 cash prize that came with that award, he wrote and directed the 2012 feature I Am Not a Hipster, about an indie musician trying to eke out a living in San Diego. Following that movie’s Sundance premiere, the production company Animal Kingdom reached out to Cretton about collaborating on another film.

“I think the big fear amongst producers about first-time directors is that after day four of shooting, they're wondering if I'm going to have a nervous breakdown,” says Cretton, laughing. “But after seeing I Am Not a Hipster and reading the Short Term 12 script, Animal Kingdom had enough trust to fund the film. And everything about the movie, aside from the acting, was meticulously pre-planned. We had a shot list and I went to the locations and took digital stills, using my friends as models. I went through every scene and figured out the problems before we shot. At the same time, we were set up to adjust if the actors would feel something in the moment and that happened quite a bit.”

Since completing Short Term 12, Cretton has deliberately avoided rushing into production on another movie, instead relishing the opportunity to travel with the film to festivals around the country and discuss the world depicted onscreen with audiences. (After debuting at South by Southwest in March and winning the Grand Jury and Audience Awards there, it has since played at the Seattle and Los Angeles festivals.) “It’s been surprising to see how many people are connecting to what I thought was a very particular story about a world that I didn’t think too many people would relate to. But it’s exciting to see how universal the themes are; even though it’s a very unusual environment, I think all the emotions are heightened and relatable to people even if they had never been inside it before. And I’m not saying this isn’t a fictional movie with heightened scenarios, because one could argue that it’s slightly unrealistic that so many scenarios would stack up like this. But each of the characters and storylines is very real and in some cases the drama is actually dumbed down, because what happens in these places is so extreme that it wouldn’t feel realistic.”

Interestingly, the one audience that hasn’t been specifically invited to see the movie is made up of the people who are already a part of that world. “We haven't done any official screenings for foster kids, mainly because it’s an R-rated movie,” Cretton admits. “I've thought about it and I know it would be very beneficial, but I think the best way to go about it would be for them to watch the movie and then have one-on-one counseling sessions to process what they just saw. I have had kids who were in the system and are now 21 and on their own come to screenings at festivals and then talk to me afterwards and those have been really touching conversations. All along, that was a huge fear of mine: wondering who I’m making the movie for and if it could be bad for that particular audience. So the fact that I’ve had really positive responses from them—with people thanking me for creating what they consider to be a realistic reflection of their experience—makes me feel really good.”