Brie Larson and John Gallagher Jr. in a scene from Destin Cretton's Short Term 12

Short Term 12 emerged as a film festival favorite this spring when it swept two top prizes at the SXSW Film Festival. Directed by relative newcomer Destin Cretton and starring Brie Larson (21 Jump Street) and John Gallagher Jr. (Margaret), the film went on to seduce audiences at the recent Locarno Film Festival where Larson picked up an acting award for her role as Grace, a 20-something counselor at a foster care facility.

Opening this weekend at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, Short Term 12 screened at a special event last week at Film Society of Lincoln Center. The story is told through the eyes of Grace, who supervises the facility for at-risk teens and works alongside her long-term boyfriend, the sensitive and caring Mason (Gallagher). Grace is a tough but compassionate caretaker for the kids in her charge. She serves as an emotional crutch and substitute parental-figure, though her at-work persona masks her own troubled upbringing, which threatens to tear her and her relationship apart.

Cretton, who also wrote the screenplay for Short Term 12, noted during the conversation moderated by Film Society's Marian Masone that the film came alive when Larson and Gallagher picked up the script, bringing life to the characters before shooting began.

“To me it wasn't just this perfect script that you see on screen,” said Cretton. “It was just the beginning. I hoped to find people who'd embrace the characters and see them. When John saw the script, something in his brain clicked. And the same thing with Brie. They both took the script and saw something in those characters that they could identify with and threw themselves into them.”

Destin Cretton's Short Term 12

In the film, Grace and Mason's personal relationship is rocked by the fallout of abuse Grace experienced growing up, which becomes all the more manifest when a new teenager, Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), shows up at the facility clearly showing signs of parental abuse. The withdrawn but talented girl triggers painful memories for Grace, who is facing a crossroads in her relationship with Mason.

“[On set] there was a feeling that there wasn't a formality,” said Larson when asked how she and Gallagher worked to develop their characters. “It just felt right. During quiet intimate moments, there was a respect for the scene so people would clear out and only a few people would be there. But then in the group scenes, it felt right to have the sound people there tuning things and other crew doing their thing, and we all felt like a family.”

“We'd all fallen in love with these kids,” added Cretton about the actors playing the teens in the facility. “I've never worked with such professionals who have such subtlety and instincts. Every kid you see are hardly anything like the kids you see on screen. In fact, if anything, they're the exact opposite.”

Cretton spoke to people who work at foster care facilities, incorporating actual stories into the script. Some of those moments play out with the actors, but two very tender scenes take place at the beginning and end of the film through actual storytelling. Mason and Grace share with co-workers stories about the kids they have grown emotionally close to. The ritual both depicts what Cretton said was a common practice at the facilities he had visited in the run-up to writing Short Term 12 and serves as a vehicle to tie the film together.

“Storytelling is also an integral part of every person who works in an environment like this,” said Cretton. “They can tell you such interesting stories with such amazing twists that can make you laugh and cry. So the opening story [in the film] was taken almost verbatim from a story I was told… I'm happy it fit with the fabric of the script.”

Short Term 12 opens theatrically at Film Society on Friday, August 23.