On Friday, I wrote about Short Term 12, a movie about the residents and staff of a group home that I think is one of the finest films of 2013. Part of what makes the movie so strong is that director and writer Destin Cretton actually worked in a facility like the one that he examines here, and his experiences there informed everything from the movie’s analysis of social services bureaucracy to the film’s wry use of humor. I spoke with Cretton about overcoming his fear of screwing up–and of the kids he worked with–why he identifies with Grace (Brie Larson), the staffer at the group home who finds it hard to accept love even as she pours herself into her charges, and why pop culture makes a mistake when it suggests that only darkness is authentic. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
You spent some time working at a center like the one in the movie, and I was curious whether your experience there made you feel like there were misconceptions or tropes you wanted to push back against? There are a lot of familiar moments: there’s hip-hop, there’s bonding between staff and kids, but the movie feels really specific about bureaucracy, and about race, and about gender, and it’s very funny in a way that not a lot of movies in this genre can claim to be.
Sure, yeah. I mean, I think a lot of the familiar things in the movie are there because they just happen to be a real part of the experience there, and a real part of the environment. But there are a lot of things in the film that I haven’t seen portrayed in other movies. A huge part of that is the humor which I think is not only something that happens to be a part of that environment, I think it’s a necessary part of that environment, and a necessary part of survival there. It was a huge tool, what I noticed when I was working there, that humor was a tool that was used by the best of the supervisors as a way to lift situations that were getting heated, or even just a way to connect with the kids and keep things light. So that was something that definitely, I didn’t feel like I needed to force it into the screenplay or anything, it was just something that made its way in.
One of the things I thought was interesting in the early scenes is how stiff Nate, a new employee at Short Term 12, is. To see him develop a sense of humor about the work he’s doing over time, he’s sort of an audience surrogate in that regard.
Nate, actually, his stiffness is something I completely relate to, because that’s how I was when I started working there. I was too scared to have a sense of humor. I was too scared to enjoy myself or to have any fun with the kids, which is also a necessary part of the job. That was something that I learned over time, that somehow, in that environment, it is not just possible but it is kind of necessary to have light moments, even in the middle of really intense moments. I found that the best supervisors were able to crack jokes and keep things light and calm in the midst of restraining a kid who is screaming and cussing and spitting. That was something that was so bizarre to see when I first started working there, but it was something that became a very normal part of the day.
When you say you were scared, were you anxious about screwing up? Were you scare of the kids?
Yes. All of the above. I was mainly frightened of messing up, of saying something wrong, or doing something wrong that would trigger something in a kid that might mess them up more. I didn’t want to contribute in any way to the horrible things that have been pushed on them. But, also, when I first started there, I was scared to get hit. I ended up getting hit and taking some blows while I was there. Some of these kids are way bigger than me, so I was scared at first. But after a while, all of that fear kind of starts to go away once you really get to know the kids. And even when I say “the kids,” you just get to know them as humans, and everything starts to make, I don’t know, I don’t know if you just start getting numb to things or what. But obviously getting to know people takes away a lot of the fear. I guess, just to add to that initial thing, with this movie, a lot of the characters initially do play into somewhat typical stereotypes of what you might think of a young African-American male, or a young Hispanic male, or even a female supervisor. I think all of the characters are easy to prejudge at first, which is something that I have a tendency to do to people. But I hope that at some point in this movie you see a different side to them that maybe you didn’t expect.
That actually brought up something that I thought was an interesting throughline with Jaden and Marcus, which is what’s with the fish [Marcus is deeply attached to his pet fish, and Jaden writes stories about them]?
There are a lot of fish. I’m not sure if I want to talk about it too much, but there is subconsciously a theme that was running through the entire film that had to do with the idea of living inside an aquarium, and feeling like you’re under water. Which can feel very suffocating and trapping, but can also, from another point of view, be one of the most freeing, weightless feelings that you can have. There’s definitely pieces of that that end up scattered throughout the movie.
I know you don’t want to go too deep into the theme, but is there some relationship between that idea of the fishbowl and being observed, and the idea of the tropes that these characters initially inhabit but that they grow beyond over the course of the movie?
I think that’s definitely one way to look at it, and those themes are definitely there. Marcus, towards the end of his rap, he says “Put me in your books / So you know what it’s like / To live a life not knowing / What a normal life’s like / Put a label on my head / So you know what it’s like / To live a life not knowing / What a normal life’s like.” I think this idea of labeling and organizing human beings into boxes so we can understand them is something that definitely has benefits, but it also has a lot of not-so-good elements to it, results to doing that. I do think that it’s somehow tied to, there’s a similarity between prejuding someone based on how they look, or talk, or act, or dress and also prejudging someone based on what hteir assessment is by another person, whether that’s a social worker, or a psychologist, or something. That definitely is a part of Marcus’ cry, and part of his frustration, I believe.
But my sister is a social worker, and I think it’s one of the most heroic jobs that there is. So the movie is definitely not trying to say anything against that.
That’s certainly not the impression I got at any point. I wondered if we could talk a little bit about Mason and Grace’s relationship. Grace is a really specific type of a woman who isn’t really good at accepting other people’s good treatment of her. It’s precise and really smart, and I haven’t seen someone capture that.
I don’t really know where it came from, except that I personally identify with Grace. I think that was something that was kind of surprising to me initially when I started writing that role, it was terrifying to me because I’d never written from a female perspective. I guess in my mind, maybe again going back to this idea of prejudging and stereotypes, I just thought it would be so difficult for me to see the world through the eyes of a female. But I discovered that I am grace. There’s no difference. I am all those insecurities and things that she bottles up and ways she tries to protect herself are things I can completely relate to. The idea of not feeling like you are worthy of love is something that I can definitely relate to, honestly, at certain times in my life. It’s a really frustrating place to be in, especially when you’re someone like Grace who wants so much to love these other people, but in order for her to do that well, she has to learn how to love herself, and accept the love from other people, which can be super-hard sometimes when for some reason or another, you feel like rotten, or like you don’t deserve it.
Grace’s outbursts at Mason kind of have two components. She is baffled by his affection for her and somehow knows she’s being irrational but can’t get over that anyway. The precision of that is something I related to.
So we’re kind of alike, you and I!
You mentioned being anxious about writing from a woman’s perspective. Was there a way you got over that?
I have three sisters, and I started to feel a bit relieved when I was allowing them to read the early drafts and they felt like they could connect to the character. That was a big initial relief for me. And it kind of loosened me up a bit, I guess.
I get a fair number of emails from writers who are anxious about writing characters who are not like them because they’re of a different race, or different gender, or different sexual orientation. And I’m always curious about how people get over those anxieties because they seem to be very prevalent.
I mean, I think they should be, you should be kind of scared to be tackling something that you are not. I think for me at least in this scenario, it was a nice, it was a big learning experience for me to see that a complicated character is a complicated character, whether they’re a male or a female. It’s not so much about gender as it is about a personality and what their backstory is and how that specific person responds to the different things in their environment. There’s so much about Grace that I identify with, and there’s so much about Mason that I identify with. My girlfriend relates to Grace and also Mason. There’s just certain human characteristics that I think are universal.
I think recognizing that gender, sexual orientation, race, or class, is one of the thing that influences a character’ reaction to a given circumstance, but not the whole thing, not even close to the whole thing, is a valuable thing for people to remember.
I am with you.
I’d love to hear you talk about Mason a little bit. His character seems more self-protective than Grace’s is, and the movie seems to raise a question about which of their approaches is more effective and more sustainable for them.
Mason, I think, they could not be more opposite. But I think Mason, his character was created out of trying to figure out who Grace, a person as guarded as Grace, would allow to be in her life. That’s where Mason was born, basically. I knew that it had to be a guy who was non-threatening, who kind of had what you might consider, what some might consider, more feminine characteristics. He’s very nurturing and caring, and almost irritatingly selfless. And then to kind of figure out where that all comes from for him was also an interesting part of the writing process. To me, in a small way, Mason is the person I want to be more like and Grace is the person I am more like right now. I think there’s something very beautiful in the way that Mason has kind of adapted to his pretty not-so-great past.
It seems like while Grace is anxious about accepting love and care, Mason is able to be very grateful for it in a way that is lovely to watch.
Mason, he’s just an open book. He doesn’t care that he’s a complete goofball sometimes. He doesn’t care if he looks stupid in front of kids. He doesn’t care if he cries in front of his mom and all of these people. He just kind of is who he is and there’s something very endearing about that, and inspiring for me.
I thought his ability to take ribbing from Marcus when Marcus calls him out for dating Grace on the sly was great.
One of the things I love about Mason is that he’s kind of untouchable. You kind of can’t break him. No matter what you do to him, he’ll laugh it off. If you tease him, he’ll agree with you.
This is a fundamentally nice movie. Good people end up okay. We’re in this moment when everybody’s excited to watch horrible people do horrible things. We almost have a niceness deficit in pop culture.
I couldn’t agree more. I don’t know. Strangely, my natural temptation is to be more cynical and more of a harsh realist, to my outlook on the world. But what I tried to be less cynical. I would love to get rid of cynicism altogether in my life if I could. It would have been so easy to take that approach with this movie. Just stack up all the dark things and the extreme things, which there’s plenty of, and just put them all into an hour and a half of a downward spiral. And that would be one way to take this story. And it wouldn’t be entirely unrealistic or anything. But I don’t think it would have been an authentic portrayal of my experience of that place. Because I also, with a lot of those very dark and tragic and traumatic things that I experienced and learned about and watched kids go through, there were an equal amount of extremely funny moments where I’m just rolling on the floor with kids laughing because they’re so witty and funny. And moments where we’re just having a lot of fun together. And moments where I’m so inspired and filled with hope that I’ve never experienced those kinds of extreme highs and extreme lows together in one environment before. So I think if I didn’t also incorporate those other lighter and hopeful moments in this movie, it wouldn’t, in my view, be an authentic portrayal of what I experienced there.
You have some of those feints at cynicism. You have the dead body in the bushes in the story in the opening scene. You have the moment when it seems like the bureaucracy is going to work against Grace and Jaden. And in the end the system actually works in the way Grace wants it to and the way her supervisor wants it to. There’s no bad guy except for Jaden’s dad.
In this one case, it worked well. [Laughs] I mean, I didn’t want anybody in this environment to be a villain. That definitely was not my experience working there. Of course you can definitely find horrible people working in any environment, and there’s probably a lot in this environment. But my experience was working with very, very good people trying to be good in a system that often was quite frustrating and cornered them. And a system that worked very well sometimes, and sometimes did not work well, just like any system.
Sometimes the most radical thing you can encourage people to do is stay in the system rather than opt out of it entirely.
I mean, I do sometimes think about what happens to Jaden when she does come back into the system and decides to settle down and put things up on her well. It’s great that she’s not with an abusive parent anymore, but it’s also quite sad. I’m curious about what happens to her. I am really curious what happens to Marcus.
I hold out hope that he’s an ichthyologist somewhere.
I’m with you.