There are less than 10 people at the press screening of Short Term 12—which opens in San Diego on Sept. 13—and that scarcity is felt in the quiet moments before the movie starts. Pleasantries are exchanged between San Diego's film critics. Everyone seems to know each other; this is their version of the water cooler.
But when the conversation inevitably falls on the topic of movies, the critics become hesitant and guarded, like they're throwing their opinions into a pool of sharks.
"I think I still love Mud," one woman says when asked what her favorite movie this year has been. "That or Drinking Buddies."
"I just loved Warm Bodies," another critic says. The silence that ensues makes it clear that no one else shares her sentiment.
"Did anyone see this at South By?" another person asks, (thankfully) changing the subject. He's referring to Short Term 12's run at the SXSW Film Festival earlier this year, where it won the Grand Jury Prize.
The critics break from the territorial nature of their occupation and gush about their experiences watching this director's San Diego movies. One guy talks about seeing the original Short Term 12—the short film upon which the feature is based—during its first festival run. Someone else brags about seeing I Am Not a Hipster at Sundance. Another person says he drove all the way from Los Angeles to attend this press screening.
It seems like everyone here has a story about Destin Daniel Cretton.
A large, black SUV pulls in front of Ortiz's, a Point Loma Heights taco shop. It's one of Cretton's favorite places to eat in San Diego.
"[I] lived down the street from there while making ST12 the short and lived off their shrimp California burritos," he'd written in an email. "My mouth is watering just typing that."
The SUV is a beast, far too big for the parking lot usually populated by economy cars driven by students from the nearby high school. Cretton and Short Term 12's producer, Ron Najor, jump out of the backseat. Cretton looks back at the vehicle and smiles, acknowledging the ridiculousness of their ride.
"It looks like we're in the mob," he says. We're joined by composer Joel P West, and it suddenly feels like I'm in a really friendly version of Entourage.
Juan Ortiz, the shop's owner, emerges from behind the counter to give Cretton a hug. He calls him "Danny." When we move to pay, Ortiz waves our money away— "I've got Danny covered." The gesture makes Cretton uncomfortable, and he stands at the counter for a few moments, holding cash out, insistent, but nobody takes his money.
If the burrito incident (as I like to call it) is an indication of Cretton's apprehension toward his increasing fame, then the next couple months are going to be hell for him, because Short Term 12 is going to be huge.
The brief synopsis of the movie goes like this: Grace (Brie Larson) works at Short Term 12, a foster-care facility for teens—kids who are running the clock down until legal adulthood, when they're no longer the state's responsibility. It would be an understatement to call these kids difficult—violent physical and verbal assault occurs almost daily—but Grace handles them with respect, discipline and love. She's never patronizing, and she ultimately offers the closest thing to familial comfort that these kids ever experience.
Then Jayden shows up, a girl whose background mirrors Grace's own troubled past. This, along with an unplanned pregnancy with Grace's coworker / boyfriend Mason, erodes her strong exterior. The results are heart-wrenching.
Short Term 12 is going to be huge not because it has first-rate acting, photography and structure (it does, on all counts). No, this movie is going to blow up because of its intelligent analysis of our cyclical lives and the rare moments of enlightenment that allow us to break free. It's going to be big because it has the emotional honesty that only someone who lived through it could recreate.
"Short Term 12 was my first job out of college. I was just living off of savings every day during the job search, and that was the only place that hired me," Cretton says, referring to the facility, whose true name he declines to reveal, that inspired the film. "And it was like getting punched in the teeth with the reality of how complicated things are. It was a very difficult time for me. I felt really confused for a little bit. I think coming out on the other side of that is something that creates an interesting balance of not being afraid of the shit in life, but also not ignoring the beauty."
Cretton grew up on Maui. It was there that he and his siblings would play around with their grandma's video camera, but his first taste of actual filmmaking came during his senior year at Point Loma Nazarene University.
"I fell in love with the process of doing it and started making movies just as a hobby," Cretton says.
It was through Point Loma Nazarene acquaintances that he met many of his future collaborators, including filmmakers Lowell Frank, Brad Kester, Andrew Glendinning and composer West.
"Point Loma is really good at making people feel confident with what they're doing," West says. "There's really this culture of doing what you love, which is a little nonrealistic. I think everyone comes out being bummed on normal jobs, so they go do other stuff."
"One of the cool things for me was coming in as an outsider from the Point Loma crew," producer Najor says, "and just kind of seeing how these guys work together and how collaborative they were—just this really warm, friendly environment."
After graduating—and while working at Short Term 12—Cretton spent most of his time making short films and honing his craft. His love of filmmaking led him to graduate school at SDSU, where he sought a film degree. The original Short Term 12 was his senior thesis project.
"I was looking through old journal entries from that time that I was working [at Short Term], and that's when I started piecing some of those together into a short," he says. "It took a while to let those memories kind of fade and settle enough to where I had enough distance from it to organize them into a story."
In 2009, the short went to the Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Jury prize and jump-started Cretton's film career. He wrote the screenplay for the feature, which won the prestigious Academy Nicholl Fellowship in 2010, given to only five recipients by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences every year.
Despite the accolades, it was difficult to secure funding for the Short Term 12 feature. In the meantime, Cretton wrote the feature film I Am Not a Hipster, a love letter to the real San Diego, framing landmarks like The Casbah and Habitat House with affection—quite a different cinematic representation than what the Anchorman movies offer. It's also perhaps the most thoughtful and sympathetic treatise on the personal and professional conflicts of being a young artist.
"I wouldn't say that [I Am Not a Hipster] is a reaction to anything in San Diego," Cretton says. "In any form of art, there are sincere, genuine people who are doing it for the right reasons, and there are other people who are doing it for a thousand wrong reasons: for money, to impress somebody, to be cool . There's so many horrible reasons to make art, but that's personal to me, that whole struggle is very personal to me. I feel all those temptations."
After Sundance accepted I Am Not a Hipster, securing funding for the Short Term 12 feature was cake.
His speech becomes reverent when he talks of his time at Short Term 12. He doesn't rush when answering questions and holds me at arm's length when I get too specific: He won't tell me the location of the facility but offers that it's "somewhere in San Diego." It's clear that his experience there dramatically affected his outlook on life.
"I didn't realize how much I learned and how much my worldview changed until I was looking back on it," Cretton says. "Now, when I see the person I was when I started working there, it's so drastically different, and kind of embarrassing when I think about that person. I was very naïve and kind of had that idea of walking into there with a savior attitude, which was pretty unhealthy."
The experience left such a mark on him that he almost sounds sentimental when recalling a time he had to restrain a kid during a violent outburst (a scene that's portrayed with savage intensity in both Short Term 12 and the original short film).
"They just gotta get it out, man," Cretton says. "But in that restraint, I don't think anyone has said such cool things to me in my entire life. It's just so insane. It's so horrible, so vicious."
It would be a traumatic memory for anyone else, but Cretton smiles as he recalls it, and I'm reminded of what he said about shit and beauty.
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