It was 2001 and he’d been looking for work for a while, after earning a degree in communications from Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego. His friend was working the overnight shifts at this place, the group facility, and this friend told Cretton they were hiring. Cretton “went in and got the job pretty easily,” he says. A quick training session, a few days shadowing people and boom — he had a job tending to some of the most volatile, vulnerable and potentially dangerous people he’d ever met.
Cretton remembers, now, how he “initially walked into that job with . . . a kind of unhealthy savior attitude of — at the time, it was with the best intentions — but it was a very naive outlook on that world and the entire world in general. I thought I’d go in there and be the cool guy who just makes life better for everybody.”
On day one, Cretton talked to a “super-shy” kid. Things seemed to click. “I was feeling pretty good about myself. It seemed like we were connecting.”
That is, until they weren’t.
“I don’t even know exactly what the specific trigger was, but he ended up getting really upset.” Like something out of a comic book, Bruce-Banner-to-Hulk style.
The kid went inside his room and slammed the door. BAM! Then he came out of his room with a plastic chair in his hands. He threw it across the living room. WHOOSH! It bounced off a plexiglass window “three feet from my head,” Cretton says. POW!
“That was my first slap in the face as to how complicated this world is,” Cretton says. “And how many gray areas there are in this specific world, and also just the world in general.”
Cretton didn’t know then that what he was experiencing would become the film “Short Term 12,” which he wrote and directed and that opens in area theaters this weekend. “It actually took a bit of distance to even consider that,” he says. “It was such a strong experience that it took a while for me to organize.”
Three years later, one year after he left that job, he was poring over old journals and looking for inspiration for his thesis film. Cretton came upon a journal entry about an experience he had with one boy. You know the type: hard as rock on the outside, a tangled mess within. A volcano in human form. “Like a lot of the kids,” Cretton says, he “put on an air of, ‘I don’t really give a s---, nothing can touch me.’
“His dad was supposed to pick him up on his birthday to take him out for the day, and he was acting like he didn’t care. And then his dad didn’t show up. And he was acting like he didn’t care, for a while, until we heard his door slam. . . . I went over. He was keeping his door closed, I was pushing it open, and he finally let it fly in and took out his aggression on my face. He says some of the meanest things to me I think any human has ever said to me.”