"Short Term 12″: It's a 10.
It never hurts to have friends in the house. The Maui Film Festival drew a good crowd at the Castle Theater for "Short Term 12" on Sunday at the awkward hour of 6 p.m.
In an introduction before the house lights went dark, Suki Halevi, director of development at Akaku Maui Community Television, mentioned that the filmmaker Destin Cretton, who was born and raised on the island, had also taken his first steps as a cameraman and producer with the station. No wonder then if a sizable cheering section gave him something very like a hero's welcome.
That was as nothing, though, to the ovation that followed the film. In lieu of an official Q-&-A, Cretton met with the public in the courtyard afterward. Viewers — by no means only old friends —crowded to ask questions, to thank him, to express their deeply stirred emotions.
"Short Term 12" takes place in an adolescent foster-care facility where staffers barely into their 20s with plenty of baggage of their own look after teenagers at high risk. "You're not here to be their therapist, you're not here to be their friend," says Grace, one of the supervisors, when a new guy joins the staff. "You're here to keep them safe." (Quoted from memory, with apologies in case of any slippage.)
Over the course of the action, Grace proves the best kind of friend to more than one shattered young person, but she needs friends, too, and the beauty of the story is that she finds them. Patience, generosity, humor, empathy, a trust in others as well as a willingness to shed one's own defensive armor: these are a few of the qualities it takes to perform the miracles we witness in this humane, quietly extraordinary film.
As screenwriter and director, Cretton knows his world from the inside out; he spent two years working in such a home himself. As noted in the festival program, his short film on the same topic won the Sundance Jury Prize in 2009. Here, as it were, is the Big Picture: It arrived on Maui crowned with both the Grand Jury and the Audience Award in the narrative-feature category from this year's South by Southwest Conferences and Festivals, but no theatrical-release date for Cretton's home state.
"Like us on Facebook!," Cretton urged well-wishers after the screening. "Our distributors need to know that people here want to see the movie."
Chivo Ching-Johnson, a producer at Akaku, remembers when Cretton first showed up at the station in the mid 1990s, eager to learn about filmmaking.
"He learned his basic skills here and got certified, which allowed him to take out equipment from our lending library," Ching-Johnson said earlier today. "I met him in church when he was still a kid, and we've remained close friends ever since.
"And you know, the neatest thing about Destin is that he has remained the most humble and low-key person I've ever known, completely unpretentious. He loves his craft. But what's at his core is ethics, kindness, and a sense of morality."
The film was shot in California, and in an overt sense nothing there is nothing remotely Hawaiian in it — no tropical color, no island music—yet in the big heart and the light touch, could it be the aloha spirit coming through?
On the evidence of "Short Term 12," Cretton has a golden touch in casting. Brie Larson, decorated with the festival's Rising Star award at the Celestial Cinema Sunday night and consequently unable to attend the screening of her own film at the Castle, is pitch-perfect, both strong and vulnerable, as Grace. But then, she is seasoned beyond her years.
John Gallagher Jr., who broke out in the HBO series "The Newsroom," is likewise pitch-perfect as the patient, undemanding father of her unborn child. Kaitlyn Dever, another young talent long accustomed to the camera, takes the breath away as the troubled Jayden; you will not forget her fable of the octopus and the shark.
But others without previous credits — Alex Calloway as the red-headed Sammy, who lies in bed for days gathering his forces for superhero escapes; Keith Stanfield as Marcus, on the brink of the grown-up world — are unforgettable, too.
According to the copywriter for the Maui Film Festival's online program notes, "The handheld camera work and unsentimental direction give the feeling that this is a documentary, not a drama."
I respectfully disagree. Absolutely nothing about the film felt "documentary" to me. Never was there a sense of the "reality" show, the hidden camera, the accidental, reductive epiphany ("Aha!") that just happened to turn up on film. It begins by indirection — one of Grace's colleagues breaks the ice with a newcomer by telling a particularly embarrassing story on himself — and for quite a while Cretton leaves it to the viewer to sort out where we might be going.
The characters enter obliquely, with their cares and their masks and their secrets. In time, the major players emerge from the background, but the lesser characters are people, too: there are no cartoons, no grotesques, no types. The arcs are clean and sure.
The incomparable Anton Chekhov told stories this way in prose and in plays. The incomparable Satyajit Ray told stories this way on film. It's the way of masters.