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'Short Term 12' Director on Why It's Worth Getting Punched in the Face by a Troubled Teen

These are questions that director Destin Cretton has also personally grappled with. We discussed his own eye-opening experience as a careworker at a teenage foster home and why - despite getting punched in the face - it revived his faith in humanity.

Can one person really make a difference? Destin Cretton, writer and director of Short Term 12 - which swept up the Grand Jury and Audience Award at this year's SXSW Festival - thinks so. With bittersweet humor, Cretton's Short Term 12 deals with the highs and lows of caring for at-risk teenagers through the eyes of Grace (Brie Larson), a twenty-something foster home supervisor. While still dealing with her own history of sexual abuse, Grace struggles to maintain control over the facility as well as her own deepening relationship with her boyfriend and co-worker Mason (John Gallagher, Jr).

After witnessing much of the troubled teenagers's trauma and pain, you inevitably ask yourself: should everyone have the right to have children, or to become parents? Are we ever really ready to be responsible for someone else's happiness on earth? These are questions that director Cretton has also personally grappled with. We discussed his own eye-opening experience as a careworker at a teenage foster home and why - despite getting punched in the face - it revived his faith in humanity.

What inspired you to write and direct Short Term 12 - did it come from direct experience?

Destin Cretton: It was inspired by my first job out of college, working for two years at a group home in California for at-risk teenagers . It was the first time I was exposed to that kind of environment. A lot of workers got scared and gave up after two weeks. But I forced myself to stay. I'd wake up every morning with my heart pounding in my chest because I was afraid of messing up, of doing something to these kids that'd make their lives even worse than they already were - or just getting punched in the face.

Did you get punched in the face?

That happened once, but it wasn't as bad as I'd thought. After two months of getting to know everybody there, the fear went away. As soon as I understood who the kids really were, and the context of their personalities - why they have anger and that front they put on - it became one of the most fulfilling jobs I've ever had.

What does "Short Term 12" actually stand for?

"Short Term 12" is just a clinical term for the place used in certain foster care systems. There are short-term facilities and long-term facilities, and "12" refers to the level of care needed by the youth there. 14 is the highest level. 12 is an interesting hodgepodge of kids. There's not a huge difference between the kids that end up there and in a 14. A lot of times you're left wondering, "What the hell is this kid doing here?"

You've won a slew of major awards at SXSW and Cannes. But have you received any insightful critique?

Sure, I've received all kinds of critique, but don't necessarily agree with them. This film ties up a lot of themes and has a lot of specific set-ups and pay-offs that feel extremely crafted, especially in the last act. But creating a narrative film - versus a straight-up documentary - just felt like the right thing, because I was able to focus on the emotions of what it feels like to work in that environment, and how volatile everything is. How an intense explosive scene can quickly turn into something that is somehow hilarious and fun. You can see these young men and women who have so much shit that they've been through, but still are able to play ping pong, and laugh and joke like normal kids - that back-and-forth was something that I was trying to capture.

Do you think the film's plotline sugercoats the potential trauma of the situation?

The easy way out would've been to take all the horrible elements, and make something that's really gritty and raw and feels real, but is actually unnecessarily harsh. I can't tell you how many kids' lives legitimately turned around at the moment when they were ready to put a gun to their head, because of one counselor or foster parent. Its humbling and shocking for a mind that is inclined towards cynicism, which mine has always been. There was a kid that almost killed a female counselor. But because she stayed in his life, he turned himself around. Now he's the father of four kids and working as a chef at the facility where she's still working. Hearing repeated stories like this has revived me towards the positive side of humanity. As fucked up as any system can be, when it comes to humans, it just takes one person to help another person. Its not super-complicated.

Who are your favorite filmmakers?

I love Steve James's Hoop Dreams and Stevie. Stevie is a documentary where he plays Big Brother to a troubled boy, and their incredibly complicated relationship. That theme of wanting to help, but discovering how complicated everything is, is something that carried over into my film.

Were there any unexpected challenges in making Short Term 12?

We shot for 20 days with almost no budget. But the biggest challenge was that in order to tell this world correctly, it had to have a lot of emotions in it. Something that seemed realistic in the real world was often overdramatic in a movie. So walking that line was definitely a challenge, and its up to you guys to decide whether we did it right or not.

What's next?

Its not official yet. But my next project also explores the theme of family, the balance between the shittiness and beauty of life, and is also based on a true story.

After this success, do you feel any pressure to do it bigger and better the next time?

Nope. No pressure at all.

Destin Cretton's award-winning Short Term 12 is now showing in UK theatres.

All photos courtesy of Verve.

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