Saturday Stories – Destin Daniel Cretton’s Sincere Cinema

Destin Daniel Cretton’s two feature films, I Am Not A Hipster and Short Term 12, are widely praised above all for their sincerity. Read a few reviews (I recommend Manohla Dargis’, Christy Lemire’s, and Matt Singer’s especially), and you’ll see the same word—”honesty”—popping up again and again. Also, this article by a man who grew up in a short term care facility is fascinating and speaks better than any to the authenticity of Cretton’s film.

But where does that honesty originate? Is it rooted in his subject matter? After all, Cretton is a San Diego native, and the San Diegan hipster community featured in his first film has been part of his life. He aslo worked for a season at a short term care facility like the one in his second film. Or does that authenticity come from his cinematic style? He and his team do favor hand-held cinematography and light production design which together put the audience in amongst what feels like the actual world.

I believe those factors contribute to the air of authenticity in his films, but I do not think they are the ultimate sources. I believe those story-telling choices are out-workings of a deeper conviction, a philosophical or spiritual posture that tends toward the embrace of pain and a reach toward a better world. To consider this, I want to look at the two key conversations in Cretton’s two features.

Both of these conversations happen at the beginning of the second act crises in the films. On the surface, these conversation seem very different—one is about art, and the other is about child care—but considered more closely, the argument of both protagonists is essentially the same–a true reckoning of the world requires experiential knowledge of pain.

It would be typical for the protagonist’s belief at this point in a film to be wrong and for the final act of the film to both reveal to the character how wrong she or he is and provide her or him an opportunity to change her or his beliefs. Cretton’s films don’t do this. Instead, they both affirm their protagonists’ contention and modify it by allowing other characters to enrich the one thing these protagonists know from their own experience. By the end of Cretton’s films, his protagonists haven’t simply experienced revolution–the wiping away of an old belief by a new one. Rather, Cretton’s characters are more mature. They have built upon their earlier understanding and are moving toward even greater maturity.

I Am Not A Hipster – The Crumpled Straw

In I Am Not A Hipster, the key conversation—a conversation ostensibly about what constitutes true “art”—a conversation not unfamiliar to any group of highly educated twenty-somethings—happens when Brook (an angsty Dominic Bogart) attends his friend Clarke’s art show. Brook is at the lowest point of his depression over losing his mother two years before, and he no longer sees any value in the kind of creativity expressed by his ecstatic, hipster, San Diegan friends, a creativity exemplified by the kind of exuberant frivolity (glued together inflatable dolphins and PBR can Kosuth knock-offs) crafted by his best friend Clarke (a winsome Alvaro Orlando). Their argument comes to a head when Brook learns that Clarke has asked Brook’s romantic rival, Dennis, aka Spaceface, to perform some of his electronic music to climax the art show.

Brook contends that the hipsters have no business calling what they make “art,” because what they make is empty and thoughtless. The underlying critique is that, unlike Brook, hipsters have no idea what it’s like to suffer. “Don’t call it ‘art.’ Call it something else,” Brook declares, “Call it ‘fluffy shit,'” “fluffy” being the derogative term that qualifies what they make as “shit.” “Fluffy” is soft, comfortable, and painless. “Fluffy” yields shit.

Brook’s one album, Canines, which rocketed him to relative fame amongst the San Diego indie rock scene, was inspired by his mother’s death. The songs are a record of his grief. He produced them immediately upon arriving in San Diego, his late mother’s hometown, after skipping out on her funeral to suddenly move there. Brook knows pain. He’s lived in it, performed it, and given interviews about it incessantly for the past two years. Clarke, on the other hand, plans to use his unemployment check to put gold rims on his fixed gear bike and spent seven months producing a video in which he substitutes a pair of mouths for his eyes.

When Clarke protests that he doesn’t make art to be great but rather to be happy, Brook asserts that it’s not art-making that makes anyone happy—something he knows full well—but rather “incognizance,” that is, an unawareness of reality. Reality, for Brook, is pain, and Clarke and his kind are blind to it. Clarke’s mouths-for-eyes video is a kind of ironic admission of this fact. Hipsters don’t see. They simply consume. The film’s title, Brook’s contention, is that he is not a hipster, because his identity isn’t the result of what he has assumed and consumed. His identity has been imposed upon him by his loss. Fed up with his drunk, depressed friend, Clarke then goes inside to enjoy his party. Brook finishes the last of his liquor and then follows his friend inside to lash out violently against Spaceface (on purpose) and Clarke (accidentally).

Brook and Clarke aren’t alone while they are having their argument. A third party is present–the camera. Throughout the scene, it’s as if the film can’t decide whose side it is on. At times, it is on Brook’s side, capturing shots of Clarke from over Brook’s shoulder. At others, it’s on Clarke’s side, capturing Brook from over Clark’s shoulder. The only time they are shown together is when Brook’s ex-girlfriend and Dennis arrive. When Clarke gets up to leave and rejoin the party, the camera stays with Brook momentarily to show him finish off his liquor, but then the camera rejoins the party as well to participate in and show the real fun the hipsters are having inside.

The scene ends as Brook’s sisters are escorting him away from the party. As they leave, Brook drops a crumpled up straw on the ground, and Cretton’s camera lingers on it in close-up as the Hyde family retreats from the scene. The straw slowly uncrumples. Earlier, Brook told Clarke derisively that he could film a straw and project it against a wall, and the hipsters would consider it art. By focusing on the uncrumpling straw, Cretton’s camera embraces both Brook’s pain and Clarke’s happiness. The camera says, “Actually, this straw is art. It does have meaning, Brook, but it’s also crumpled, Clarke, and the crumpling is essential to its meaning.” Cretton’s camera stays with the straw, a symbol of the necessity of both sides of the argument. Artistic expression of the nature of the world does requires pain to be true, but it also needs joy.

Short Term 12 – The Shattered Lamp

In Short Term 12, Grace (an angsty Brie Larson) has almost reached the lowest point of her week as well. One of the kids she cares for, Marcus (an astoundingly good Keith Stanfield), has lost a beloved pet, another, Sammy (Alex Calloway), has slipped into a near catatonic state after his therapist took away the dolls that acted as substitutes for his lost sisters, Grace feels utterly incapable of being the kind of parent the baby growing inside her will need, she receives word her abusive father will likely be released from prison soon, and the teenage girl, Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), with whom she recently connected—a girl who is essentially a stand-in for her younger self—has been released to go home with her supposedly abusive father. Grace storms into her supervisor, Jack’s (Frantz Turner), office to protest Jayden’s release.

Jayden’s release into her father’s care directly contradicts a report Grace filed concerning Jayden’s home situation. Jack dismisses her report stating that she is merely “line staff” and not a psychologist. Grace protests that Jack and the other psychologists evaluating the kids have no idea what’s going on in the lives of these kids because they aren’t in the trenches working with the kids day after day like she is, and she implies that they could never understand what it’s like to be Jayden, because unlike Grace, they’ve never been abused by a parent.

While the content of the argument differs greatly from the content of the argument in I Am Not A Hipster, the underlying argument is the same. Grace says Jack doesn’t know what he’s talking about because he isn’t speaking from a place of experiential pain just as Brook argues that hipster art isn’t art because it’s not fueled by emotional distress. As I Am Not A Hipster admits, knowledge of truth does require knowledge of pain. It just must also be coupled with joy. So, Cretton doesn’t simply repeat the argument from his earlier film again in Short Term 12. He develops it.

When Grace contends that she is better qualified to assess the situation because she knows their pain, Jack counters that he too knows what he’s talking about, because he has known these kids’ and other kids pain. He’s known it for longer than Grace has been alive, actually. The corrective here isn’t joy, but temperance. Jack knows his limits, and he knows that he is incapable of bringing justice to all these kids’ situations immediately. This work requires patience, long-suffering, and faith that good will win out in the end. Furhtermore, in contrast to the similar scene in I Am Not A Hipster, this conversation is shot entirely from Grace’s perspective. She’s the one learning something here. Jack isn’t.

Grace isn’t ready to hear this, so she fires an invective at Jack just as Brook fired an invective at Clarke. While Brook counters that Clarke is stupid, Grace counters that Jack is self-interested. In both cases though, the argument ends with an ad hominem attack by the film’s protagonist which the other party dismisses.

In I Am Not A Hipster, the scene ends when Brook breaks up the party and throws a straw on the ground. Short Term 12‘s scene ends as Grace suddenly grabs the lamp on Jack’s table, takes it outside, and breaks it into pieces on the pavement. Earlier in the film, Jack brags about his lamp and how all you have to do was touch it to turn it off and on. Grace is unimpressed.

The lamp is symbolic of at least two things. First, it sits on the desk, and therefore is a sign of Jack’s authority and the frustrating inertia of institutional administration. Second, you must only touch it to turn it off and on. For Grace and Brook, their work is fueled by hardship. There’s nothing easy about it. For Jack, Clarke, and Spaceface, their work is simply a matter of touching a lamp or pressing a spacebar. It’s thoughtless and automatic, or at least that’s what Grace and Brook believe, and so the lamp must be destroyed.

I Am Not A Hipster‘s crumpled straw hints at the film’s resolution when Brook is able to voice his pain in the midst of festive hipsters, finally choosing a measure of joy even though his grief still remains. Short Term 12 doesn’t hint toward its resolution in the same way in this lamp-breaking scene, although the film’s penultimate moment which comes much later is an expression of all the film has argued for thus far–an awareness of brokenness, joy in the midst of sorrow, and endurance in doing good. Short Term 12 does hint at its resolution in other ways though.

First, Cretton makes use of a well-worn plot device to put a symbol of hope at the center of every scene–Grace is pregnant, and her decision, at one point, to abort the child is the strongest evidence that she has abandoned all hope. (Abortion in cinema is a complicated topic. The decision of a character to abort the child or not is most often, I believe, a matter of preserving dramatic tension and not a matter of ideology. The fate of the woman and the child is too urgent a narrative feature to resolve without making the rest of the story about the repercussions of that decision. I am conflicted on whether or not using a pregnancy in this way is entirely ethical. Slate’s Amanda Hess does an excellent survey of abortion in cinema in her recent review of Obvious Child. I recommend her review heartily.)

Secondly, the film’s score is sparse throughout. It sounds as if it is being constructed piecemeal as the narrative progresses, as if it is searching for wholeness. The score longs for resolution. The theme comes together entirely just before the final scene as the camera takes a tour of the Short Term 12 facility to check in on the kids living there. Throughout the film, scenes featuring certain characters in this ensemble cast feature parts of the theme, such as just the bass line, just the tapped out central melody, or only the strings. During this tour, the theme is still plaintive—after all, these kids’ problems haven’t been solved yet—but it is also gentle, lovely, peaceful, and whole.

As the action of the final scene breaks out, the film’s score swells into its lushest orchestration. The song is called “Brushbroom Glow,” and it is also written by the score’s composer, Joel P. West, and performed by his band, The Tree Ring. Because of this, the song sounds like the most fully realized version of the sparse score we’ve been hearing throughout the film. This is hope inaugurated if not yet fully in the lives of the film’s characters, at least in its soundtrack. “Brushbroom Glow” continues as the image goes to black and the credits scroll.

Saturday Stories

In both of Cretton’s films, the resolution isn’t complete. It is merely hinted at. Brook still has grieving to do (not to mention his burgeoning alcoholism to heal) and Grace has a baby on the way (but not yet here) and a care facility full of kids still in need of care. The resolution in these films is simply a measured maturation. Brook and Grace are one step beyond where they were when their films began, but they’re not wholly whole yet. They’re still journeying toward wholeness.

Cretton’s willingness to close his films without a complete resolution is a mark of maturity in itself. It is a sign that his films are made for adults or at least for people intent on becoming adults. (Most of modern cinema is made for stunted or enthusiastic adolescents.) These are liminal films, and as neither the world nor each of us is whole yet, we’re all in a liminal state. Recognizing that liminality is key to being both merciful to ourselves, others, and the world and hopeful about what we all might become.

In his opus on the necessity of a transcendent reality as the basis for all true art, Real Presences, George Steiner contends eloquently that it is because humans live in this liminal state that humans make art and need to make art. (He also argues against the need for the kind of criticism you are reading right now, but don’t hold that against him. I don’t. The book is beautiful. The part I’m about to quote comes from the very end, and I almost hate to spoil it for you more than I hate to spoil either of the films I am critiquing.)

After briefly discussing how much the Christian church likes to focus on Good Friday and Easter Sunday, Steiner writes, “But ours is the long day’s journey of the Saturday. Between suffering, aloneness, unutterable waste on the one hand and the dream of liberation, of rebirth on the other. In the face of the torture of a child, of the death of love which is Friday, even the greatest art and poetry are almost helpless. In the Utopia of the Sunday, the aesthetic will, presumably, no longer have logic or necessity.”

The “suffering, aloneness, unutterable waste”–these are the places where Cretton’s stories begin. Children are being tortured. Loves have died. Brook cannot write or perform. Grace cannot express herself to her boyfriend or connect genuinely with others. “The greatest art and poetry are almost helpless.”

But the stories never quite reach “liberation” or “rebirth” either. As the stories close, we are still far from Utopia. Cretton’s stories point to that place, but his characters are not there yet. If they were, perhaps as Steiner argues, “the aesthetic [would], presumably, no longer have logic or necessity.” And surely the aesthetic is necessary. Otherwise, why make a film?

I Am Not A Hipster and Short Term 12 are Saturday stories. They are, to borrow Steiner’s words, “apprehensions and figurations… which tell of pain and of hope, of the flesh which is said to taste of ash and of the spirit which is said to have the savour of fire.” They are fine films because of their fine filmmaking craft, complex characters, clever stories, and first-hand understanding of real people and places, yes, but they are all the better and perhaps touch something transcendent because they are comfortable resting ultimately in that suspended middle space between death and resurrection, where we all live now. That is the true source of their sincerity. Cretton’s films are deeply true and worthy of the deep admiration they have received.