“Auteur filmmaker”: a descriptor that brings to mind plenty of nebbishy white dudes, cut from the same cloth as Wes Anderson and Woody Allen. Destin Cretton, the writer-director of one of 2013's best under-the-radar movies, Short Term 12, does not fit that description. Tall and commanding, the half-Japanese, half-Caucasian Cretton comes across as a soft-spoken, gentle giant while munching on fruit and sipping coffee at Echo Park's Brite Spot Diner.
He's currently simmering on the slow burner that is a Hollywood success story. His first film, I Am Not a Hipster, set in San Diego's folk-music scene, follows a musician as he tries to come to terms with his family. But his calling card is Short Term 12, which started as his thesis film for grad school at San Diego State. It's based on his own experiences working in a short-term care facility for troubled youths, a time he calls “one of the most important experiences of my life.” The feature version, which took five years to make, won both the audience and Grand Jury awards at South by Southwest last year, and premiered to critical acclaim over the summer, though due to budgetary constraints, it only reached a limited audience.
“I never intended for it to turn into a feature, but the response to the short film was so positive that it made me realize how universal the themes are that are wrapped up in this little ecosystem that I was exploring,” Cretton explains.
Though a film about the real problems teenagers face (poverty, abuse, mental illness – not the self-imposed problems of the Spring Breakers crew) isn't the kind of blockbuster story most audiences are used to, it's an important story to tell. “Big doesn't necessarily mean loud and visually explosive,” Cretton says. “Big can mean intimate and quiet, and that can give just as big a feeling in your chest.” Short Term 12 easily could have been a droning, preachy movie, but through his specificity of vision, it becomes eminently watchable.
This comes from a combination of good writing (which goes hand-in-hand with directing for him – he's currently planning to do both on the adaptation of Jeannette Walls' novel The Glass Castle, starring Jennifer Lawrence) and an intrinsic understanding of humanity. One way in which this comes to the surface is the musicality of his characters, such as Short Term 12's Marcus, who uses rap to address his painful past. “They're all using various forms of art or creative expression to work through the things that they're capable of talking about,” Cretton says.
Cretton, 35, also is a good reflection of the true diversity of the world, unlike the overwhelmingly white male hierarchy in Hollywood. Now an Echo Park resident, he grew up in Hawaii with five brothers and sisters. “I'm used to being around a hundred different ethnicities and cultures,” he says. “I hope that I continue to be able to explore worlds and stories that are as diverse as that.”
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