Destin Daniel Cretton’s second feature film, Short Term 12, which opens this Friday in theaters across North America, is both unique and familiar. The film follows Grace (Brie Larson), a twenty-something foster care supervisor, as she struggles to do right by the kids in her ward, while managing her own set of parallel problems. The film is semi-autobiographical, written and directed by Cretton, and that shows: Short Term 12 is one of the most poignantly true-to-life films I’ve seen this year. The script is modest and grounded, conventional in its story arc, but stunningly unique in its ordinariness—humbling is the word I came out repeating. With seemingly every superhero in the cannon and innumerable dystopian futures monopolizing America’s big screens this summer, Short Term 12 stands out for its simple humanity.
Much of the film’s strength is due to lead Brie Larson, whose reserved warmth as Grace inspires a Purple Rose of Cairo kind of desire: you’ll want to breach the screen to give her in a big hug. In real life, Brie is as charismatic and compassionate, though less troubled, as her character. A couple weeks ago, I sat down with Brie Larson in midtown Manhattan where we discussed the making of Short Term 12 and what it means to wear “a human suit.”
A majority of the movies I’ve seen this year have been about other movies—genre pieces and reverential cinema, like Only God Forgives or The Canyons. What I loved about this movie was that it was a movie about life. What kind of research did you do?
On the foster care side of it, I shadowed at a facility. I followed this woman around as she worked and picked her brain about every aspect of it: how she prepares herself mentally, how she copes, what it looks like when she’s not at the facility, how many hours she puts in; those sorts of things. The cast also spent time with a staff member who went over the basic handbook stuff with us, the legal rules and other training, like how to restrain the kids so as to not hurt them in any way.
The humor in this script, which is both light and dark, really resonated with the kind of humor I’ve experienced in similar institutions, working with kids in need. Was there much improvisation?
There was very little improvisation. A lot of the stuff that feels like it was improvised, Destin wrote and that’s the beauty of him as a writer. But the humor of it is a real thing that happens in these types of facilities because otherwise it’s too heavy. You’re trying to get these kids to open up, to be positive. The best advice one facilitator shared with us was, “You just gotta keep it light.” I felt like that was a really interesting way of looking at, not only this situation, but life in general. Everyday we are presented with the choice to trudge through the mud or to rise above it. A lot of the time we just choose to trudge, to fall for depression, because it’s—
Because it’s seductive in its own way.
I don’t know why. I think we feel special in it but it’s really not a special feeling at all. It’s something that we all do and when we see it in other people, we don’t enjoy it. We don’t look at them and go, “God, what an interesting person and how tortured they are!” We think, “God, lighten up a little bit!”
This film felt so unique in its humanity, which was alarming to me because its strength is just that—generous humanity. That shouldn’t be so unique. Why do you think we’re not telling these kinds of stories more?
Well, there are audience interest and industry reasons for that. You know, you can’t help but turn your head when you see a bunch of flashing cop cars and you can’t help but turn your head when you see a naked woman walking down the street. I might not look if there’s a bunch of kids running down the street. If I saw Grace walking down the street, I wouldn’t turn my head. There’s a reason why the flashing lights and naked women movies get made. But that’s forgetting that there’s nothing more powerful than honesty and beautiful, flawed honesty. People connect with this film because there’s something in it that’s eternal. It’s about being human and that’s so weird! We have these like [gestures at her body] human suits. I trip out on my hands from time to time. Other times, I’ll look down and realize, wow, my feet feel so far away from my head, I can’t even believe that I’m in control of them. This movie touches you in that way, it surprises you with your humanity.
What’s it like seeing yourself on screen then? What’s the human suit you see?
I have a really tough time watching myself sometimes because I know the inner workings of the production. The illusion is gone. It’s like the magic trick not being interesting because you know the trick. I see what I was trying to do. There’s also something that’s really terrifying and exposing about watching yourself. But I just try and give myself a lot of love and forgiveness and parent myself a little.
What are you working on right now?
I’m writing a web-series. I’m also looking at scripts and starting to take my first meetings as a director, which is really exciting, but I haven’t made any moves yet. Right now, I’m totally satisfied watching this film blossom. It’s like watching your child grow up and go out into the world. I’m not ready—I don’t want to get pregnant again just yet, I want to watch this baby grow.
Although when the child leaves the nest, it’s nice to have something waiting…
Right, well that’s the thing. I can only clean the kitchen so many times before I need a project to work towards.