It should come as no surprise that “Short Term 12” director/writer Destin Daniel Cretton is disarmingly kind, generous and gracious. Winner of the Narrative Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at the 2013 SXSW Festival, his feature mines a tragic and very real landscape of abuse and neglect to tell an often-breathtaking story about the enduring power of everyday human decency and kindness. “Short Term 12” is set primarily in a group home for displaced (but don’t call them “underprivileged”) adolescents and teenagers supervised by a young staff wholly invested in their care, despite their lack of administrative power and constant awareness that any of the residents could be relocated at any time. The story is told through Grace (a magnificent Brie Larson), an incredibly strong but deeply sensitive young woman with a traumatic past of her own, which threatens to get the best of her despite the unwavering love and support of Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), her co-worker and boyfriend. Although the narrative makeup of “Short Term 12” may sound somewhat familiar, we guarantee this movie is not quite like anything you’ve seen before.
We sat down with Cretton (“I Am Not a Hipster”) to talk about the growing buzz surrounding his second full-length feature, the challenge of avoiding genre cliches, and a surprising setback along the way to the success of “Short Term 12.”
International Business Times: Were you prepared for the kind of response “Short Term 12” is getting?
DDC: No. It’s impossible ... for me to try to think of how a movie or anything I make is going to be interpreted or accepted. It’s been really wonderful.
We all had a very small group of people in mind that we were making the movie for. It was a small way to say “Thank you” to the people who choose to work in this environment. And that’s who I was most scared to show the movie to. And so far it’s been really great to hear how much it means to them ... they seem to feel that it represents their experience, at least on emotional level.
IBTimes: And you had experience working in a group home?
DDC: Yes. It was my first job out of college. I worked there for about two years. So I’m not an expert on it by any means. My experience only took me so far in the writing process and then I filled in the gaps and created more characters based on interviews that I did with other people who worked in that world much longer than I did.
IBTimes: I feel like there are so many ways that you can go with this kind of film, that’s about people who have tremendous pain, and tremendous obstacles to overcome in their background. Yet, I feel like a lot of filmmakers approach it in the same way. And you did something so different with it. When people ask me to describe what “Short Term 12” is about, I find myself hesitating, because I feel like if I just deliver the log line, people are going to expect Hilary Swank to show up or something. It’s a really difficult film to describe, because there is a particular genre that exists, I think, but this is not part of that.
DDC: Good! I think for a movie like this, it’s really tempting to take it in one of two directions: It’s really tempting to take it into an overly sentimental direction, and that concentrates on a teacher-slash-savior “saving” a bunch of kids. It’s also just as tempting to take it in the opposite direction and create just an extremely dark, extremely difficult movie to watch, that exposes all the very real darkness in this world. For me, either of those directions just wouldn’t be an authentic portrayal of my experience there. Which was one that not only exposed me to the very tragic and difficult lives of the kids and the staff there, but also was an incredibly wonderful and entertaining and funny place to be, and I laughed more than any other job I’ve had. I also cried more than any other job I’ve had. It was important for me to show both the difficult parts but also the very hopeful and happy and humorous parts of that world.
IBTimes: One thing I observed about the film is that all of the really terrible, horrible stuff that exists in the world these characters live in was behind the scenes a bit. It was all there -- it wasn’t hidden -- it just wasn’t thrust right in front of us. What we saw were people being kind to each other, and helping each other.
DDC: A specific theme woven throughout the movie is this very simple idea that we’re better off walking through s--t together, and that humans have the ability to be inspiring and selfless and kind in the midst of the most difficult situations. I didn’t necessarily set out to do that -- it just happened while I was writing.
IBTimes: And that was your experience when you worked there? I feel like there’s got to be some kind of inherent good in people who seek out that kind of work.
DDC: My experience was working with some really great people. And then there are definitely a lot of people who work in places like that who are not good. This is just a snapshot of one aspect of this world.
I think the people who choose to continue to work in that kind of environment, for long periods of time, there is something about them that can find value in this kind of job. They are not being rewarded by money, they are not being rewarded by people being thankful, most of the time. It’s a very thankless job in so many ways, and there’s got to be something in them that drives them to wake up in the morning and go and just be the one stable thing in these kids’ lives. There’s definitely a lot of great people working in that field.
IBTimes: Can you tell us anything about your own background that helped you identify with the characters?
DDC: Fortunately, my parents are great. I’m a little more similar in my background to the Nate character who kind of came into the situation with rose-colored glasses, thinking that I was going to do good in this world.
IBTimes: Did you ever say something embarrassing like Nate did?
DDC: [Laughing.] I said so many wrong things, and did so many wrong things with the best intentions and quickly was kind of slapped in the face with the complexities of that world, and just the world, in general. But it wasn’t incredibly uncommon to find out, after I got to know other co-workers, some part of them that they were able to pinpoint as the initial motivation for wanting to go into this line of work ... they had a way that they were able to relate to the kids on some level. Some were as extreme as the characters in the film, some were not so extreme.
My parents were never abusive or neglectful, but there are things in my life that have happened that allow me to identify with some of this stuff that the kids are going through. It didn’t feel completely foreign to me.
IBTimes: Is it true that “Short Term 12” didn’t get into Sundance?
DDC: [Pausing.] I don’t want to create a controversy because this movie would not exist if it wasn’t for Sundance. [The short film that was the basis for the “Short Term 12” feature won a Sundance Film Festival Jury Prize in 2009.]
And I could not be happier with what happened at SXSW, and Sundance is still a huge support to us, and me. I just feel so lucky to have been able to be a part of both of those families.
IBTimes: Were you surprised that you didn’t get in?
DDC: I was devastated. For a couple of days. And then I got over it.
I totally understand [choosing among Sundance submissions] is the hardest job in the world. You gotta reject people. There are so many things that are out of the hands of the filmmakers.
IBTimes: I know some filmmakers are able to get explanations for their rejections. Did you get an explanation?
DDC: I didn’t get one.
IBTimes: Maybe you have to ask for one.
DDC: I asked for one, and I didn’t get one.
DDC: [Laughing.] They just got busy, they don’t have time to write a critique ... But they’ve been supersupportive of us since, and Trevor [Groth, Sundance director of programming] is a friend of mine. I like all those guys, they’re great, they’re the best.
IBTimes: And they will never reject another one of your films again.
DDC: In a weird way, it gives me more respect for them. They don’t play favorites. I think for the independent film community that’s kind of cool, to hear that they are not going to accept something just because they played the short and they played my first feature. They’re still looking at new films and filmmakers. It’s also kind of nice as an indie filmmaker to know that just because you got rejected by Sundance doesn’t mean you suck.
“Short Term 12” (which definitely does not suck) opens in limited release Aug. 23. In New York, it will screen at the Landmark Sunshine and the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center.