Only five years ago, Destin Daniel Cretton was a grad student at San Diego State University, working on a short film as his thesis project. That short was called Short Term 12 and it was based on Cretton’s previous experience working in a foster care facility for at-risk teenagers.
Now, the 34-year-old director is travelling the world touring his sophomore feature, also called Short Term 12, a sensitive drama with a powerhouse performance from Brie Larson, following the foster care workers whose personal dramas get entangled with those of the kids they care for.
We caught up with Cretton as he was attending the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, where Short Term 12 is having its Middle Eastern premiere.
GFW: Short Term 12 was originally a short film. Did you always see it as a feature?
Destin Cretton: No, I didn’t. The short was just my thesis film. As a student I couldn’t think anywhere beyond trying to finish this short. It premiered at Sundance and won the jury prize in 2009—that allowed me to tour the film around. When I heard and experienced the response from audiences to the short film, it was the first time I realized how broad a lot of the themes were and how many people were connecting to it whether or not they knew anything about the subject. That was the initial inspiration for writing the feature and expanding the stories.
The timing for Short Term 12 seems relevant considering a lot of the debate surrounding mental health today. What would you want the film to add to that debate?
The only thing that I hope the film adds to any type of debate is a little bit more of an emotional context towards what it feels like to work or live within this environment. I think it can be much more productive to talk about policy change when you have people’s faces connected to that; when you have real life experiences connected to the policies that you are fighting for. We hope that this movie can, at the very least, be the beginning of a conversation.
Your main character, Grace, has severe emotional issues based on her own childhood trauma, which equips her for her job in the foster home. Did you find that some of your co-workers at the foster care home would have similar baggage?
I wouldn’t say that that was a rampant, common thing but it was common enough to have heard a few stories; not specifically what Grace has been through but similar situations in different ways. Things happened in the childhood section of their lives that were sort of the spark that made a lot of these workers say 'I don’t want this to happen to anyone else'.
I didn’t do any type of long-term research so it’s kind of silly to make any kind of broad statement. But in my experience a lot of the workers who have chosen to stay in this line of work, who do a really good job at it and who aren’t just cycling through because they think it looks good on a resume, a lot of them have some aspect of their life that allows them to really feel that empathy for what the teenagers are going through.
I gather from the film that it’s also a dangerous thing when you have someone with personal convictions in such a sensitive professional role?
Totally. The character of grace is an incredibly flawed supervisor. She’s really good at what she does. She’s also really inappropriate and desperate at times. She’s trying desperately to heal herself through healing others. There’s definitely a line where empathy can cross over into transference or whatever you want to call it. You’re unhelpfully trying to help yourself through helping somebody else.
If people were to look for flaws in the foster care system by looking at the facility that’s portrayed in the film, what should they consider?
We wanted to show that sometimes there’s a lack of communication between the people who are behind-the-scenes—signing the cheques—and the people who are on the floor with the teenagers everyday. Sometimes that communication is great. We’re not trying to make a broad statement about everything. But that’s definitely something that I heard repeatedly. Tying all the administration, social workers, psychologists, doctors, nurses and line staff who are actually working every second with the teenagers. Tying them all together and creating a flow of communication is a very important thing that some facilities do well and others don’t do well at all.
Ageing out (when a teen reaches a certain age and is removed from foster care) is another big aspect of this film. That’s a pretty hot topic. Thank goodness, a lot of policies have been changed. There are a still a lot of states and facilities that are still quite behind in terms of making positive changes in terms of the aging out process.
Almost every time that there is a real positive change for any of these young people, it is not because of any rule, policy or system. It is because of one person who came into their life at the time when they needed somebody to support them and encourage them and make them feel like a real human being. That is very real. I’ve heard countless stories of former foster youth who know the exact person at the exact time they came into their lives and how that completely changed their lives. That, I think, is where the hope lies.
There’s a climactic moment in the film where Grace takes matters, involving an abusive adult, into her own hands while wielding a bat. It’s a cathartic moment that feels a bit fanciful, like the fantasy of a frustrated foster care worker.
That whole sequence is by far the most extreme sequence of the movie. There is an element of heightened reality connected to it. It does happen to be a fantasy of a number of people, like my co-workers. It’s not anywhere near a realistic statement, but I’ve (workers) saying I wish I could go over there with a bat and take it to his head or just go kick the shit out of that person because of what they did to this kid that you have real love for. That was definitely Grace acting out a fantasy that I know exists.
You have this awesome little indie film that’s getting a platform theatrical release at a time when so many indie movies are being released day-and-date theatrical and VOD. How did you manage to avoid that fate and keep a traditional theatrical release? Was there even a discussion?
There wasn’t. I’m not against it at all. I’m not a distributor and I’m all for changing with the times. For this movie, the distributors from the beginning felt like this movie would do better with a traditional theatrical release. I honestly don’t know why.
Of course, it’s wonderful to have a traditional theatrical first. But I just want people to see whatever movie I make. I’m going to sacrifice anything to let people see it. So if the choice was to squash a good distribution deal because they want to do day-and-date, I would have definitely taken the sacrifice and gone with it.
You’re film is currently sitting pretty on Rotten Tomatoes with 99% fresh rating, which means right now, you have a better score than anything Martin Scorsese has ever made.
Well, that’s just silly.
Are you going to use that factoid in any arguments?
Any argument where you’re using Rotten Tomatoes as your ammunition, you’re going to lose.
'Short Term 12' opens in Toronto on November 15th.