Cretton developed that event, and the epiphany that followed — “All of that anger that he took out on me had absolutely nothing to do with me” — into a 22-minute short, “Short Term 12,” which won the Jury Prize in Short Filmmaking at Sundance in 2009. The film’s tagline had that kind of matter of fact, my-life-sucks-don’t-think-I-don’t-know-it attitude of the characters it documented: “A film about kids and the grown-ups who hit them.”
Cretton attended film school at San Diego State University and turned “Short Term 12” into a feature-length film. The full-length movie got rejected from Sundance but, at South by Southwest this past March, it won the audience and grand jury awards.
Cretton hopes that audiences can in 90 minutes glean some of the insight he developed over two years on the job. “The biggest thing I learned while I was working there is that there isn’t a huge difference, at least in my experience, between . . . the people in charge and the people that are supposed to be being cared for. And initially I felt like I had to somehow prove myself as being the leader and being the one who has everything together, and I found that the best leaders there are the ones who . . . do not feel that they are on a higher plane than the kids. They are able to be open and honest and equally as vulnerable with them when it is appropriate to do so.”
“Open and honest and vulnerable” is a good summation of Brie Larson’s performance. The 23-year-old actress (seen on Showtime’s “United States of Tara,” “21 Jump Street,” “The Spectacular Now”) gets her first starring role as Grace, a counselor who helps people solve their problems while shoving her own strife off to the side, refusing to acknowledge it, maybe thinking it’ll go away if she just acts like it isn’t there.
“The Grace character is extremely guarded and has a lot of [stuff] that she hasn’t dealt with,” Cretton says. “In every single scene in the movie, she has something else on her mind.”
Grace is frustrating, which isn’t to say that she’s not likable — “I think Brie naturally brings that lightness, and reliability kind of naturally is in her,” Cretton says — but rather that, for every thousand thoughts that must be brewing in her brain, one, maybe two, are musings she opts to share. Female characters don’t usually get to be difficult like this; as a general rule, they have to be the girlfriend, wife or mistress who caters to her man’s crazy (see also: Betty and Megan Draper, Skyler White). This time, it’s Grace who gets to talk in those elliptical, infuriating sentences, Grace who withholds the information that would put her sometimes inexplicable behavior in context, Grace with the dark past she refuses to discuss. Her boyfriend, Mason, has to be the picture of patience, resolve and forgiveness. He bends to keep her from breaking. Mason is played by John Gallagher Jr., who can be seen reporting on the very recent past on HBO’s “The Newsroom” and is no stranger to troubled-teen territory; he won a Tony Award for his portrayal of the sexually frustrated, suicidal Moritz in “Spring Awakening.”