Short Term 12 an enduring tale of teens at risk

For Destin Daniel Cretton (above), who directed Short Term 12 starring Brie Larson (with Kaitlyn Dever), the tiny moments of interaction count. -- PHOTOS: PERSPECTIVES FILM FESTIVAL
For Destin Daniel Cretton (above), who directed Short Term 12 starring Brie Larson (with Kaitlyn Dever), the tiny moments of interaction count. -- PHOTOS: PERSPECTIVES FILM FESTIVAL
For Destin Daniel Cretton, who directed Short Term 12 starring Brie Larson (above, with Kaitlyn Dever), the tiny moments of interaction count. -- PHOTOS: PERSPECTIVES FILM FESTIVAL
For Destin Daniel Cretton, who directed Short Term 12 starring Brie Larson (above, with Kaitlyn Dever), the tiny moments of interaction count. -- PHOTOS: PERSPECTIVES FILM FESTIVAL

Destin Daniel Cretton uses his experience as a counsellor at a home to make Short Term 12

Many film-makers dream of fashioning drama out of their own lives, but too often that idea is put aside for easier projects that fit a genre, whether it is fantasy, thriller, comedy, romance or horror.

American writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton is one of the brave few who took on the job of creating a piece of fiction that is partly autobiographical.

His film about the two years he spent as a counsellor at a home for at-risk teenagers is Short Term 12 (2013), the opening film of this year's Perspectives Film Festival, organised by students of the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information at the Nanyang Technological University.

In its seventh edition this year, the festival features seven films around the theme of displacement. Speakers this year include Sooni Taraporevala, screenwriter of the celebrated drama Salaam Bombay (1988), and local film-maker Jasmine Ng.

Short Term 12 has won awards around the world, including the Young Talent Award at the Hamburg Film Festival for the 35-year-old Cretton, for making "that rare work of art that tells a sad story in a manner that is not only suspenseful, but also as complex and colourful as its characters necessitate".

It is his second feature-length film, after 2010's I Am Not A Hipster.

He tells Life! on the telephone from Los Angeles that his latest feature is "very personal, based on a lot of things that happened to me".

"The questions it raises are things that I struggled with and continue to struggle with. Some of the kids I worked with had experiences far from anything I've ever had. So tragic and horrible. But there was something about each of the stories I could relate to," he says.

The lead actress, Brie Larson, has earned awards and praise for her sensitive performance as Grace, the head counsellor, the character based on Cretton himself.

Grace, who works with boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher Jr) at the home, seems to be in control of her life until the arrival of Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), a troubled teen whose circumstances dredge up Grace's own buried past.

Meanwhile, inside the home, the other teens have to get along. Inside the highly charged atmosphere of the home, small exchanges can have lasting consequences.

For Cretton, the film seems to be less about the plot than the importance of small, flickering moments of person- to-person interaction. It is a lesson he picked up working at a group home.

"Humans affect one another so easily. Sometimes, all it takes is a look. We can affect one another negatively. But in the same way, we can affect one another positively, to counter that," he says.

A film about tiny moments would not have been possible without actors who were committed to the script and were ready to do research, says Cretton.

To prepare, the cast spent a few days observing counsellors at work. Cretton brought in a friend who was a counsellor for question-and-answer sessions with the actors. Also, the mentor-student relationship between the older actors playing the counsellors and the younger ones playing the teenagers arose naturally once they had been on the set for a few days.

"In the way the actors were looking at one another, sitting, their body language - it was all more interesting than what I had written," says Cretton.

The Hawaii-born director ventured to take communications at a college in California. He was unsure what to do with himself after graduation until he saw the opening in a group home.

Like most young people who become counsellors, he saw it as a transitional job, one that would last a few months until he found a proper job. And, like many who take up the work, he went in with the idea that he would fix damaged people.

"I didn't have the right reasons for taking the job and I didn't start it with the right attitude. That was something I had to learn over the course of two years," he says.

"Most people who do the job well have learnt how to do it without acting like they are above them. I thought I was the guy who was bringing something great to all these kids. It's a saviour mentality and it can be very damaging."

johnlui@sph.com.sg