NEW YORK — It took only a few hours and the violent tossing of a chair across a room to shatter Destin Daniel Cretton’s illusions about working at a foster care facility for at-risk adolescents.
Before he became a filmmaker, Cretton worked at a group home near San Diego in his first year out of college. His first morning on the job, he was joking around with a seemingly easygoing teenager and bonding over their mutual passion for skateboarding. A few hours later, the same kid picked up a plastic chair in an aggressive outburst and threw it at the plexiglass window right near Cretton’s head. Cretton called it one of the scariest moments of his life — and it completely altered his view about what he was doing there and his ability to affect change.
“I kind of walked into the situation with a naive view of the world and view of my place in that world, which was that I was there to help these kids and be the savior and be the cool guy,” he says during a recent interview in Manhattan.
Cretton’s intense, life-altering experience at the foster care facility became the inspiration for his film “Short Term 12,” which opens in the Boston area on Friday. It premiered earlier this year at the South by Southwest Film Festival, where it captured both the grand jury prize and the audience award for narrative feature.
“I had gone through such an emotional ride while working there. And I had learned so much about myself and about the world,” Cretton says. “You need a rule enforcer and someone to be the strength and a leader for those kids. But it’s also equally as important to let the kids know that you respect their thoughts and you respect them as people. That was a huge lesson for me.”
“Short Term 12” centers on the 20-something staff toiling at a foster care facility and the sensitive but sometimes troubled kids and teenagers they serve. The home is geared toward shorter-term care, but many of the kids have been there for much longer. The action is seen largely through the eyes of Grace (Brie Larson), the fierce and nurturing facility supervisor who’s grappling with her own tumultuous past, and her devoted, adoring boyfriend and co-worker, Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), who was raised in a large home by loving foster parents.
Among the kids are Marcus (Keith Stanfield), an intense, quiet soul who is struggling to face his upcoming 18th birthday, which means he will be forced to leave the nurturing world he’s come to call home; and Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), a rebellious young girl with whom Grace develops a close-knit yet charged connection.
Because of the intimacy of the staff’s relationship with the adolescents and the telling details they often glimpse up-close, the caretakers sometimes find themselves compelled to go beyond their supervisory roles, despite not having training as mental health professionals.
“What was so strange about that world is that there’s not a huge difference between the caretaker and the people they’re taking care of,” says Cretton. “The caretakers are not much further along the road of life and experience than the kids in the facility. So they’re both often struggling with the same things. But their roles are very different. While I was working there, there were so many times when I would question myself, ‘Why am I the person who’s guiding them?’”
Indeed, Cretton says that the movie is, in part, about “messed-up people trying to take care of messed-up people.”
But the idea that he connected with most strongly is that “it’s better to walk through [expletive] with somebody else. That the world can be hard, but you can still find real, genuine laughter in the midst of a pretty crappy situation.”
Cretton was born and raised on the island of Maui. As kids, he and his five siblings would use his grandmother’s video camera to make ninja movies and fake commercials. He earned his master’s degree in film at San Diego State University, where his thesis project was a 20-minute short film that was the eponymous precursor to “Short Term 12.” The short went on to win a jury prize at Sundance in 2009, which spurred him to transform it into a feature-length film. The unproduced script was awarded a prestigious Nicholl Fellowship from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Cretton then used that money to create his low-budget first feature, “I Am Not a Hipster,” which premiered at Sundance in 2012 to warm notices. He says that film, centered on a indie musician learning to cope with the death of his mom, proved to funders that he could navigate the more emotionally intense scenes in a feature-length version of “Short Term 12.”
For the feature, Cretton expanded on his own real-world experience by conducting interviews with other people who worked in the foster care system, and he incorporated many of their stories and anecdotes into the film.
“My experience could only take me so far,” he says. “I sat with one guy at a bar and we drank for four hours and I recorded the conversation, and the stories just kept getting better and better. And they were all so tragic and moving, but also so hilarious. That’s kind of where the tone of the movie came from.”
At the facility he worked at, Cretton recalls how heightened emotions would so easily bleed into each other. “If you just spend a day in a place like this, you quickly realize that anything can happen at any moment. Laughter can quickly turn to rage, and rage can quickly turn into laughter.”
The character of Grace was inspired, in part, by one of Cretton’s own supervisors. He remembers her as a small-framed, kind of shy and soft-spoken young woman — unexpectedly overseeing kids who were often twice her size or had been in gangs.
“When she walked through the gates, she put on this hard-shelled cloak, and she commanded that place. The kids respected her, and she respected them,” he recalls.
Up-and-comer Larson, who played Toni Collette’s rebellious daughter on Showtime’s “United States of Tara” and appears in “The Spectacular Now,” helped shape Grace, who’s reluctant to face her own troubled and abusive upbringing.
“She’s so fragile and you know that she’s struggling inside, yet she puts on this air of being so strong and kind of calloused,” Larson says. “There are a lot of things in her past that she hasn’t really dealt with.”
Gallagher, who stars as Jim Harper on HBO’s “The Newsroom” and won a Tony award for “Spring Awakening,” calls Cretton’s screenplay one of the best he’s ever read. And despite the intensity of the material, he describes the filming as fun.
“There was something very easy and very freeing about the style in which it was made, but at the same time Destin always had a clear vision and was very much in control as a filmmaker,” he says. “He really was able to strike that balance of putting his stamp on something and at the same time take a step back and make sure that the actors have room to play. Because you get so many happy accidents and naturalistic moments if you keep the heat low and the pressure off a little bit.”
In terms of tone and emotional authenticity, indie films like “Beginners” and “Half Nelson” were touchstone reference points for “Short Term 12,” says Cretton. He was also inspired by documentaries, such as Steve James’s landmark “Hoop Dreams” and his 2002 feature, “Stevie.” That last film centers on James’s “big brother” relationship with an abused and neglected young boy who bounced around different foster homes.
“It’s similar to this idea that we’re talking about in ‘Short Term 12,’ where somebody starts off thinking they’re going to be the savior and then finds out how complicated it is. There’s no simple answers to anything,” he says. “But I also think the underlying feeling of both those documentaries is the desire to be good. That no matter how complicated and difficult and dark things can be, there’s still goodness in the world. That’s something I tried to capture in my film, too.”