Issue 16.5: October/November 2013

Moving Pictures

Story by Shannon Wianecki
Photos by Sue Hudelson

Destin Daniel Cretton doesn’t look a Hollywood guy. He wears hooded sweatshirts to movie premieres—even important ones — and is more apt to make silly faces at the camera than to assume a self-important pose. Schmoozing is anathema to the creative, candid 34-year-old writer and director. What he’s interested in is telling stories of how regular people find hope in rough seas.

Cretton lives in Los Angeles but was born and raised on Maui. He recently returned to the island to screen his muchanticipated feature film, Short Term 12, at the 2013 Maui Film Festival. The movie tells the tale of a supervisor at a foster care facility who is as troubled as the teens she watches over. The film debuted earlier in the year at the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas, where it netted both the Audience and Grand Jury Awards. It went on to win the Audience Award at the Los Angeles Film Festival, and on Maui it took the award for Narrative Feature Drama. In fact, nearly every festival Cretton attends sends him home with a winner’s plaque. He is fast gaining acclaim for making movies that tackle the toughest subjects with clarity, grace and humor.

Cretton grew up in Ha‘iku, a rural community set among pineapple and sugar cane fields on Maui’s north shore. The Cretton family’s tiny, ramshackle house could barely contain him and his five siblings; more often than not, Destin, Denim, Joy, Brook, Spring and Merrily were outdoors, exploring the wet forest barefoot or catching freshwater prawns in the nearby gulch. Their father, Daniel Cretton, worked for the fire department. Their mother, Janice, a New York-trained hairdresser, homeschooled her tribe for religious reasons. The seeds of Christian charity she sought to plant found fertile soil; today each of her children possesses a humanitarian streak and is quick to lend a hand or a flash a smile.

The Cretton kids weren’t allowed to watch television, so they acted out dramas, commercials and magic shows of their own. When their grandma lent them a video camera, their productions began to get professional. One peek through the camcorder’s viewfinder and Destin was hooked. He began filming his older brother Denim’s surf adventures and marshaling his younger brother and sisters onto make-do sets, handing out scripts and stage directions. A director was born.

After graduating from high school, Destin Cretton headed to Point Loma Nazarene University, where he majored in communications before attending film school at San Diego State, where he wrote and directed four short films and two feature-length documentaries. His subject matter was all over the map, from people conquering severe birth defects to modern jousters (people who dress up as medieval knights and stage battles in parks). Even these early projects reveal common threads in Cretton’s work: tenderness and unwavering optimism.

In between college and graduate school, Cretton worked at a group home for at-risk teens—an experience that blew his worldview wide open. “It was by far the scariest, most terrifying job I’ve ever had,” he says. “And the most rewarding.” At the home he supervised adolescents who’d suffered terrible abuse and were prone to emotional outbursts. Once he confronted his own fear of inadequacy and learned how to establish discipline with the kids, he found that he connected with them. “They all had baggage,” he says, “but they were also resilient human beings: funny, witty and great to be around. The big lesson I learned there is that kids respect consistency. And they respect people who respect them.”

Cretton distilled the experience into a twenty-two-minute film, Short Term 12— the precursor to his most recent feature. The short is a brief and powerful look at one day in a foster care facility. From the moment it starts—with a frustrated kid bashing an ‘ukulele against his bedroom wall—it grabs the audience and doesn’t let go. Cretton cast actors as unadorned and authentic as he is and let their characters’ stories unfold.

One of the short’s more shocking scenes actually happened to Cretton. In the film, new girl Jayden throws a violent tantrum after her father pulls a no-show on her birthday. In real life the person who threw the tantrum was a young man. “He slammed his bedroom door, and I went to force it open,” says Cretton. “He let it fly and jumped me. I took a couple of blows to the face. A few hours later we were having a heart-to-heart conversation.” It wasn’t all darkness in the group home, though, and just as in life the film interlaces tension with comedy. The result is a realistic portrait of residential care that critics described as “compact, subtle, resonant and assured.”

The day before Thanksgiving in 2008, Cretton received a call that his short had been accepted into the Sundance Film Festival, the nation’s most prestigious independent film festival. He was so surprised that he accused the caller of playing a prank on him. But it wasn’t a joke. The giddy film student packed his bags for Park City, Utah, where he played in snow for the first time, mingled with roughly fifty thousand other cinephiles and shared his very personal work. His blog posts from the week-long event read like an astronaut’s play-by-play of takeoff.

Cretton has essentially been in orbit ever since. Short Term 12 won the festival’s Jury Prize for Short Filmmaking. It went on to win at festivals in Seattle, Aspen and Boston and was even short-listed for the Academy Awards. But as well received as the movie was, Cretton wanted to develop its characters and themes further. He rewrote Short Term 12 as a feature-length film—a much bigger project that would require a hefty budget. He and producer Asher Goldstein shopped it around for two years but couldn’t find funding.

Then Cretton got a big break. His script was one of five out of five thousand chosen for the 2010 Nicholl Screenwriting Fellowship from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The fellowship came with $30,000 to produce a new screenplay. That year, Cretton wrote I Am Not a Hipster, showcasing San Diego’s indie art scene. He split the Nicholl funds with his roommate Ron Najor and Najor’s uncle; together they produced the film.

 I Am Not a Hipster doesn’t ride the same razor’s edge as Short Term 12, but it does have its share of drama and redemption. The story follows Brook, an angst-y musician whose mounting depression crests when his sisters arrive unexpectedly to spread their mom’s ashes. It’s no accident that the rambunctious sisters who invade Brook’s house and shower him with uncomplicated cheeriness are named Joy, Spring and Merrily. Cretton swears that Brook’s sullenness and Joy’s bossiness are fictional, not representative of his actual siblings. But, he admits, “The essence of the sisters in Hipster is very similar to my sisters. When all three of them are together, it’s like life glows around them. It’s pretty hard to stay in a funk when they’re around.” That’s the film’s basic message: that no matter how lousy life seems, love surrounds you, and will heal you if you’re willing to let it in.

Cretton’s sisters were extras in the film; Joy also did the costumes. The rest of the Hipster cast and crew were Destin’s friends —members of the same San Diego subculture the film sought to document. They staged scenes at their haunts: the legendary Casbah where touring bands perform, a local art gallery and their own homes.

The beautifully shot film has an immediacy reminiscent of Douglas Coupland’s breakout novel, Generation X. Like Coupland, Cretton homes in on details that define the time: “fixie” bicycles, ironic moustaches. The film has a vintage sheen inspired by Instagram, the photo-sharing app popular with young artists. “We created that look exclusively for the movie,” says Cretton. He worked with the colorist from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Social Network to tweak the film’s colors frame by frame. But even if audiences miss these achingly current pop culture references, they might still resonate with Cretton’s deftly rendered characters.

With Hipster in the can, Cretton had a polished feature to show investors and was finally able to secure funding for his more ambitious project, the remake of Short Term 12. This time around he could hire professional actors and indulge in a filmmaker’s fantasy: mixing sound at Skywalker Ranch. The feature-length version of Short Term 12 bears some resemblance to the short but revolves around a new main character: Grace, the fierce yet utterly fragile supervisor of the foster care facility. When a new resident arrives, Grace’s own past demons are triggered, throwing her personal and professional life into chaos.

“I emailed my agent before I even finished the script and said, ‘Oh my god. I have to do this,’” says actress Brie Larson, who plays Grace. It was her first lead role, and she delivers a startling, poignant performance that helped land her the Maui Film Festival’s Rising Star Award.

Working with Cretton and his team was “completely different and better” than projects she’s worked on in the past, Larson says. “I’ve done dramatic roles before and have gotten really good at torturing myself for an ‘honest performance.’” But Cretton wanted something simpler, less manipulative for both the actress and the audience. She describes filming a particularly dramatic scene when Grace comes undone. “We did one take, and Destin was like, ‘That’s it. That was Grace.’ In my mind I was just getting started!” She laughs. “It was a life-changing moment for me. It was the first time anybody said that I didn’t need to force myself or others to feel some immense pain.”

Restraint and subtlety are hallmarks of Cretton’s filmmaking. Marcus, a brooding teen on the cusp of adulthood, is one of the most compelling characters in Short Term 12, though he communicates mainly through sideways glances and flinches. In one scene the wound-up teen performs a rap he’s written and, with blistering lyrics, confronts his absent mother about the abuse she dealt him. It’s a harrowing glimpse into a dark childhood, but the song’s energetic beat, creative rhymes and passionate delivery elevate it to an anthem of vindication. When Marcus finishes rapping, the camera hangs on his face for several moments. Cretton captures the tension, charged with conflicting emotions, and asks the audience to stay with it.

At the Maui Film Festival screening, Cretton waved to his grandparents sitting in the plush Castle Theater. After the credits rolled, the audience—many wiping away tears — erupted in cheers and gave their homegrown talent a standing ovation. Outside, they crowded around to ask him questions, including what’s coming up. He’s contemplating his next screenplay, he said, about a mother rediscovering herself after her last child leaves for college. And yes, her name might be Janice.

Meanwhile, Cinedigm snapped up North and Latin American distribution rights for Short Term 12. The company released it in wide circulation in August and will launch an awards campaign for its star, Brie Larson. Beyond industry insiders the most important response to Short Term 12 has been from those who keenly understand its subject matter. Cretton has received a number of letters like the following: “We adopted our son from a residential treatment center and unfortunately lived much of what you showed in your film. … Your film was the most honest and realistic portrayal of residential life for both the kids and the staff I have ever seen.”

Cretton expected a small demographic —fellow indie movie fans—to appreciate Short Term 12, but he’s been stunned by the positive response he’s gotten from the general public. “It’s instilled in me a little bit of hope in humanity,” he says. “That without all the glitz, glamour and explosions, people still love watching stories of good people trying to be the best they can in a messed-up world.”