Destin Daniel Cretton’s “Short Term 12,” a grand jury prize winner at Austin’s SXSW in March and heading for a prestigious international debut in Locarno, stopped by the Los Angeles Film Festival last week for a Hollywood red carpet debut. It earns it!
Cretton created his film out of his master thesis short film he made at San Diego State University, which went on to win the Jury Prize at Sundance 2009. Adding even more glory to his project before cameras rolled, his feature screenplay won a Nicholl Fellowship given out by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Both films stem from Cretton’s experiences working in a group home for troubled teenagers. Knowing that world intimately, Cretton is able to fashion an ensemble drama that explores its often tense, walking-on-egg-shells atmosphere as well as the broken lives of its teens with honesty and genuinely touching emotions.
He also creates striking roles for his young actors that give the film its dramatic backbone. But the really interesting thing, especially for a male director, is that he chooses to bring an audience into this unusual world through a female point of view.
Overseeing a Southern California foster-care facility for at-risk teens is a quietly confident though tough-minded young woman named Grace (Brie Larson in a break-through performance) and her equally compassionate co-worker and longtime boyfriend, Mason (John Gallagher Jr.).
For all the casual banter and friendliness between these two as they introduce a new worker, Nate (Rami Malek), to the anything-but-routine routine at the facility, you sense something unresolved between the two lovers.
These caregivers aren’t therapists — there are mental health pros assigned to each resident — but rather workers hired to create a safe environment and keep their wards from any self-destructive behavior.
The story’s initial dramatic focus centers on a young African-American youth, Marcus (Keith Stanfield). He is about to turn 18 and so must leave the facility even though he clearly is not ready for the outside world.
While still a crucial subplot, this storyline swiftly gives way to two others. A troubled teenage girl, Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever, above), arrives at the facility. Withdrawn and sullen, she presents a challenge to Grace.
As Grace slowly works to win the girl’s confidence, life throws Grace another whammy — a more immediate and personal one that will inevitably expose those unresolved issues with Mason, whom she loves yet cannot confide in.
Cretton emerges as a full-blown, complete filmmaker on his first feature outing. He heightens the dramatic tension within all his story lines with each passing minute, direct all his actors to lived-in performances and give the world of his movie such a documentary-like quality that you never question a single moment. Everything has the ring of truth.
Much of the film, however, rides on a profound performance by Larson. She is not a flashy actress, thank goodness, but rather one who invests each moment with just right inflection that reveals a new side to her character and by extension the facility itself.
The Grace-Jayden dynamics are the movie’s heart and soul. While the film looks and acts like an ensemble piece, everything must flow from the increasingly complex relationship between the two females.
As Grace learns more about the issues that trouble Jayden, these come to the caregiver as a slap in the face: For she is reminded of the very things that nearly destroyed her as a younger woman.
Increasingly, the movie makes clear that Grace and Mason have much in common with their younger charges.
Cretton moves easily from one crisis point to another, digging deeper into the Grace-Jayden time bomb while weaving this skillfully into the Grace and Mason’s disconnection and then Marcus’ meltdown.
Thus, the big “reveals,” those moments where the film touches on the very heart of the characters’ dilemmas, happen almost casually — in a children’s story Jayden has written that she shares with Grace or a rap song Marcus composed that he performs for Mason.
This is the avenue these youngsters find to reach out to their caregivers. And these cathartic moments let the film’s younger actors, Dever and Stanfield, really shine.
At one point the film even leaves the facility to join a celebration Mason has with his own foster parents. This serves to shows how the foster-care system can work when everything goes as it should.
So Cretton is not telling tales about a dysfunctional system, but rather portraying a system fraught with problems yet dedicated to improving damaged lives as best it can despite the handicaps of time, money and legal issues.
Fortunately, Cretton understands how humor can add to the drama or take the edge off any potential for melodrama. “Short Term 12” never descends into soap. On the contrary, its drama stems at all times from its sharply written characters and extraordinary cast.
There is never a false move in the film nor a moment where the director or an actor overplays his hand. Even the key moment between Grace and Jayden, where the potential exists for either tragedy or soap suds, a note of humor intervenes and the movie glides smoothly to a satisfying although by no means happy-ever-after ending.
Brett Pawlak’s handheld digital camerawork coupled with Cretton’s unforced direction establishes an intimacy and tonal evenness that rules out any sensationalism despite those moments where you can hear an audience sucking in its collective breath.
“Short Term 12” is a must-see for cineastes wanting to catch filmmakers and a cast on the verge of great things. It is scheduled to open domestically August 23.
Venue: Los Angeles Film Festival (Cinedigm)
Production Companies: Animal Kingdom, Traction Media
Cast: Brie Larson, John Gallagher Jr., Kaitlyn Dever, Rami Malek, Keith Stanfield, Kevin Hernandez, Melora Walters, Stephanie Beatriz, Lydia Du Veaux, Alex Calloway
Director-screenwriter: Destin Daniel Cretton
Producers: Asher Goldstein, Maren Olson, Joshua Astrachan, Ron Najor
Executive producers: Frederick W. Green, Douglas Stone, David Kaplan
Director of photography: Brett Pawlak
Production designer: Rachel Myers
Music: Joel P. West
Costume designer: Mirren Gordon-Crozier, Joy Cretton
Editor: Nat Sanders
No rating, 96 minutes