Destin Cretton on Short Term 12
Drawing from his own past experience as a foster home supervisor, writer/director Destin Cretton conveys both the crucial part that humor plays in caregiver resiliency, and the artistic outlets in which abused children express the unspeakable.
by KJ Doughton
Slathered in peeling yellow paint, the building’s outside walls appear drab and benign. But looks can be deceiving. The interior of this building pulsates with the volatility and pain of a thousand exposed nerves. A California-based foster care center for at-risk teenagers known as Short Term 12, its rooms and hallways are swarming with broken children awash in the emotional fallout of abuse and neglect.
Outside its doors, four staff members take in the morning sun’s calming warmth before their workdays begin. Huddling together for mutual support, they’re shaking off stress even before it’s time to clock in. Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), the disheveled, curly-haired comedian of the bunch, recalls the perils of chasing an escaped kid across town after ingesting too much spicy Mexican food. His bowels gave out in public, causing a “fiesta in my shorts, pouring down my legs.”
Before this giggling, twenty-something group can savor the gross-out finale, a shirtless redhead named Sammy bolts from the door and sprints past them in a blur. Hell-bent on escaping through the courtyard gate that separates Short Term 12 from the outside world, scrawny Sammy is quickly overpowered by Mason and tackled to the ground. Kicking and screaming, he wails in rebellion, “De-escalate, my ass, you dumb fuckers!” Mason, gripping the defiant boy in his arms, grins at Sammy’s protests and rolls his eyes, as if to say, “Here we go again. It’s just another day in paradise.”
Welcome to the darkly humorous, emotionally volatile world of Short Term 12, Destin Cretton’s insightful film about troubled kids and the dedicated, tireless team who watches over them. Whether employees or youths, each of Cretton’s characters is hauling around some disturbing, heavy baggage. Short Term 12 doesn’t shy away from this darkness, but it also acknowledges the absurd comedy percolating beneath their pathos. Both Cretton and his onscreen cast understand that there’s a magic, resilient quality to humor, even under the bleakest of circumstances.
Mason’s opening story, for example, exemplifies the sick, goofy guffaws inherent in social work culture, used by many providers as a means of defusing tension and dealing with their grueling work scenarios. According to Cretton, Mason’s scatological recollection is based on fact. “That story was from an interview with someone who had been working at a place like that for 20 years. We chatted for about four hours, and I’ve never laughed so much. During the stories, we were both laughing. The next moment, we were in tears.
“This was a staff member who really did care about his kids,” Cretton continued, “and humor was a huge part of how he related to them. The job itself sounds like a downer, where you’re dealing with a lot of sad realities about what the kids are going through. But at the same time, the kids are able to laugh off situations that seem like there should be no humor involved. That’s part of survival. And it’s also part of why it can still be such a wonderful place to work… an extremely rewarding place.”
In fact, the inspiration for Short Term 12 was Cretton’s own humbling stint as a foster home supervisor. Initially, we view the film through the inexperienced eyes of Nate (Rami Malek), a new employee at the facility representing the director’s own perspective on this sensitive line of work. After being introduced to his new clients, the fumbling Nate unwisely declares that he’s always wanted to work with “the underprivileged.” His patronizing comment doesn’t go over well. “What the fuck is that supposed to mean,” growls Marcus, a towering black rapper who stares Nate down with suspicious eyes.
“It was brutal,” Cretton recalls of his initiation into foster care work. “The first month I was working there, I felt terrified. I felt like at any moment, one of these kids was going to find out that I had no idea what I was doing and call me out on it. I went into that scenario naively thinking I was going there to change lives… which is not a horrible thing to hope for. But in a weird way, I was kind of putting myself above them. They figure that out extremely quickly.
“What I learned was that these kids want respect, just like anybody else. It was not a hierarchy. Yeah, we’re there as staff members, and we’re there to do our job. But nobody is better than anybody else. We’re walking through this life together, with all of its ups and downs. Hopefully, we’re doing our best to take that walk alongside each other. It took me a couple months to learn that lesson, and it ultimately became one of the best experiences of my life.”
Initially, Short Term 12 presents its supervisors as deeply empathic and perfectly suited for their jobs. Grace (Brie Larson), the facility’s senior supervisor, is both quick to handle crisis and compassionate enough to connect with the most uncommunicative of kids. With her plain-Jane mane of shoulder-length brown hair and tomboy dress code, Grace isn’t about pretentious flash. She’s cool, competent and collected… or so we’re initially convinced. As the film proceeds, Grace’s fierce maternal instincts collide with her own past history of abuse—exposing the unstable vulnerability lying dormant within. The powers that drive Grace to greatness, we discover, are the very demons that she must cast aside to find personal peace.
Mason, whose teddy bear approachability and gentle humor make him a magnet to the kids on his caseload, also appears well-equipped to navigate the emotional mine-fields of Short Term 12. Like Grace, whom he’s dating, Mason has survived a chaotic childhood history. However, the movie suggests that unlike Grace, he’s come to terms with his imperfect past.
While Cretton isn’t aware of any statistics correlating past trauma with one’s desire to take on care-giving as a livelihood, he’s convinced of the connection. “It definitely occurs. It was evident on some levels with people I worked with, and seemed natural that certain staff members, for better or worse, chose to be a part of this. Perhaps it’s because of things that happened to them when they were young, and they have the desire to not let that happen to anyone else. Or maybe it’s a subconscious thing that draws them back to the place they were once involved in. It’s hard to say whether it’s a healthy thing or not.”
Meanwhile, Short Term 12 pulverizes another stereotype: that foster parents are malevolent perverts and wicked stepmothers with evil intent. The film makes refreshingly clear that Mason’s talent for empathy and goodwill is at least partially shaped during his formative years, by a supportive foster family.
“I think in Mason’s case,” explains Cretton, “he has learned to deal with his background in a positive way. And his involvement in working at a place like that seems like a really healthy thing to do. I wanted to show that there are extremely loving, wonderful foster parents who are able to transform the lives of kids, just by coming into their lives at the right moment and showing them that they can be loved. So that was definitely an important part of the story. Mason, on many levels, represents the realistic hope that you can get through and deal with dark parts of your past, most of the time, with the help of people who support and love you. Grace is doing a good job, but I’m not sure that during the time in her life shown in the movie, she should be doing that job. We tried to show different sides of the coin.”
The young clients watched over by Grace and Mason are still swimming within the stormy seas that their overseers have at least had time to partially absorb. But subtle visuals, including goldfish bowls, legs being shaved at the edge of a tub, framed pictures of loved ones, and make-up applied at a sink, remind us that these kids enjoy the same simple pleasures as their peers on the outside.
The emotional power of Short Term 12 is thrust into overdrive with the appearance of Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), a new resident whose tough-cookie exterior masks thin-skinned, fragile terror. When Jayden is showered in affection at a birthday party hosted by peers and staff, she’s elated. Soon afterwards, however, she bursts into dangerous, uncontrollable rage. Why? Because her abusive father wasn’t in attendance.
“We tried to explore some of the things I saw while I was working there,” explains Cretton, before taking a short pause, his voice cracking with emotion. “Things that somewhat shocked me, like the unexpected ways that kids reacted in certain scenarios. That is a fairly common thing, in my experience, with kids who are in abused situations. They simultaneously despise their (abusive) parents and love them intensely. Emotionally, it’s an extremely difficult situation for them, to be both protective of their parents, while wanting nothing to do with them.”
Short Term 12 is wise about many things. Perhaps the film’s most profound insight is its understanding of the enormous power that art can play in the recovery of wounded souls. When Jayden finally lets her guard down to Grace, her pain is expressed not with words, but with a sadly beautiful story of a shark and an octopus. Using her written prose as a metaphor for the complex relationship between victim and abuser, Jayden describes the shark’s agreement to play with the octopus under one strict condition. During each play-date, it will bite off and devour one of the octopus’ legs.
“The octopus story,” reveals Cretton, “was a result of trying to figure out how to authentically show how Jaden’s character would reveal anything about herself… that thing inside of her that she would not talk about. This was a huge challenge. I don’t even know where that idea came from. It turned into a pretty good analogy.”
Marcus, another silently seething resident of Short Term 12, finally breaks down in front of Mason with the raw, purging words of an improvised rap song. “That was something fairly common in my own experiences working in that environment. There were a number of times when I thought that certain kids weren’t even thinking, in their brains, about what happened to them, or things that they had gone through. It seemed like on the surface, they weren’t even thinking about it or dealing with it at all.
“But there was a time when one of the kids shared a rap with me, and it was full of these incredibly insightful things, amalgamations of what he had gone through. It completely changed my perspective, seeing that all of that was happening in his head, but he wasn’t talking about it. It comes out in other ways.”
Brie Larson, in a performance that toggles dynamically between ferocious and subtle, conveys Grace’s wounded duality in one sublime, silent scene. Lying in bed with Mason, her eyes reflect the conflicted fear she harbors over a life-changing discovery. Silently guarded, Grace refuses to confide in her lover about emotions too complicated for words.
“That was something we all kind of learned throughout the course of making this movie,” explains Cretton, reflecting back on the scene. “We felt like the more words that we cut out of the script, the better it seemed to be. In the scene with Brie, we stripped it down to the bare essentials.”
During its lengthy run through nation-wide film festivals, Short Term 12 has amassed a slew of notable recognition, including Audience Awards at March’s SXSW festival and this month’s LA Film Festival. But the director says his most rewarding accolade came from a twenty year-old viewer after a screening of the film. “He came up after the screening,” recalls Cretton, “and told me he had been in the foster home system for all of his teenage years. He had come to watch it with every intention of hating it. He didn’t expect any truth in its portrayal, but was extremely touched and very connected to the movie. He said it made him feel… not so alone, in a way. It was extremely touching. It brought me to tears.”
When asked to comment on the current state of America’s foster care system, Cretton is cautiously neutral. His film isn’t about politics. “Our movie isn’t saying anything about the system one way or another. It’s really a story about a group of people creating a family from unlikely situations. But I do hope that it’s a conversation starter, in terms of the way we are dealing with kids in this country. I think we should be talking about it more often, and improving it any way we can.”
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