Kaitlyn Dever wanted to make a lasting impression. Here she was, a 15-year-old actress whose biggest credits at the time were bit parts in films like J. Edgar and Bad Teacher and roles on Justified and the Tim Allen sitcom Last Man Standing, sharing the screen with Brie Larson, John Gallagher Jr., and a handful of other young actors who hadn’t yet broken but had chops. And so to prove herself, she spit on Rami Malek. Many times. Too many times, as it turns out.
“At the time I didn’t really know wide lens, short lens … what any of that meant,” Dever says, reminiscing about Short Term 12 from a table at the Bowery Hotel. After a few takes, she remembers, director Destin Daniel Cretton checked in. “He goes, ‘Have you been spitting on [Rami] this whole time?’ He then clarified, ‘We’re not really on that yet. We’re actually on Brie and John right now.’ And I was mortified.
“Oh my god, he hates me,” Dever remembers thinking. “I’m never working again. … I was around all of these cool people that I’m learning so much from, and then that sort of thing happens, and I just wanted to go in a corner and exit the room.” (Through a representative, Malek declined to be interviewed for this story.)
Malek ended up being “chill” about the whole thing, and Dever ended up being part of, in hindsight, one of the most impressive casts of the 2010s. Released in 2013, Short Term 12 is an alternatingly heartwarming and heartbreaking film about the residents of a group home for abused, neglected, and otherwise troubled children, and the young adults who look after them. Most notably, though, the movie served as a training ground and launchpad for some of the best actors working today. It caught Larson just as she was transitioning from roles in The United States of Tara and Community to the leading woman status she has today after Room and Captain Marvel; it also starred a pre–Mr. Robot, pre–Freddie Mercury Malek, a pre–10 Cloverfield Lane Gallagher, a pre–Brooklyn Nine-Nine Stephanie Beatriz, Lakeith Stanfield before his turns in Atlanta and Sorry to Bother You; and of course Dever, who has broken out in 2019 playing one half of the winning best-friend duo in Booksmart and a young woman dealing with the traumatic aftermath of being raped in Netflix’s acclaimed miniseries Unbelievable. Two Oscars, two Golden Globes, one Emmy, one superhero, and many of the best performances of the last few years can be traced back to this little indie movie that made $1.6 million at the box office.
All that considered, it’s tempting to wonder whether Cretton—who himself has risen in status as a director, this year releasing the Oscar-buzz-garnering, Michael B. Jordan–starring Just Mercy and having been tapped to helm Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, the first superhero movie directed by and starring people of Asian descent—has a fantastic, borderline precognitive level of foresight. But even he’ll admit that he never set out to usher in a wave of new talent with Short Term 12. He was just happy he was finally getting to make his movie—even if things did get a bit messy at times.
Dever had been waiting for a role like Jayden, a teenager with family issues and a habit of self-harming who comes to the group home after assaulting her therapist and reaching a breaking point with her father. When she first read the script for Short Term 12, she knew it was a “real opportunity, the kind of thing wasn’t offered to me, that has so much weight to it. … I wanted to give love and care to her story and her character.”
That often meant giving herself entirely to the performance, as several scenes depicted Jayden in her darkest moments. During one particularly harrowing scene, Jayden begins having a violent outburst when she realizes her father won’t be visiting. It’s a stunning, hard-to-watch performance for such a young actor, as Dever becomes volcanic and then almost feral, screaming and writhing as the saintly supervisor Mason, played by Gallagher, mercifully struggles to restrain her. “There are very specific ways you are allowed to touch and not touch a kid in a facility like that,” Gallagher remembers, “even if they’re having a massive tantrum and freaking out.” He admits to being nervous before the scene, and before shooting, the pair rehearsed carefully, going through each motion step-by-step. “I remember being like, ‘I am going to watch Kaitlyn, and make sure that I am following her prompts and her cues,’” the actor says. “Because she’s the one that has to be going crazy and flailing, going wild. … We were all just so blown away that she had that in her.”
In a similarly intense scene, Larson’s character, the resilient but guarded lead supervisor Grace, tries to force her way into Jayden’s room to check on her. “And finally the door opens, and I have a cupcake in my hand, and I throw it at her face,” Dever remembers. “And I think I threw it too hard, and I think I hit Brie’s head against the door. I could hear it. But she was like, ‘No, you didn’t. It’s totally fine.’ But I’m still convinced. She was just too nice to say anything.” (Through a representative, Larson declined to be interviewed for this story.)
Though the film isn’t necessarily autobiographical, Short Term 12 does come from lived experience, as Cretton once worked in a group care facility for children. “I couldn’t find a job anywhere else and I found out that they were hiring through a friend of mine,” he says. “And at the time, all you needed was a college degree. I really didn’t have any idea what I was getting into, but it ended up being one of the most impactful jobs I’ve ever had.
“A lot of people don’t last very long in that type of job,” he says. “But the people who have stayed there for long periods of time, they have a reason, or a calling, something in their own life that they went through that brought them to want to really care for people who are vulnerable, like Grace or Mason.”
Cretton worked at the facility for two years, and later turned his experiences (and those of employees he interviewed) into a short film, also called Short Term 12. For a while, that was all that it was going to be. “I didn’t have any grand plans for it after that. That was my thesis film for grad school at San Diego State,” he says. “So that’s as far as I was thinking.”
But then Short Term 12 ended up winning the Jury Prize in Short Filmmaking at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, “and I knew that there was something about the world that people were connecting to,” Cretton says. “And there’s so much in that world to explore. You could do five movies. You could do a TV series about it.” (Cretton has been exploring this option, but it’s still too early for him to say much more than that.)
Asher Goldstein had been bouncing around the movie industry since graduating from film school in 2005, doing set work for small features, eventually landing at the independent film production company Traction Media. When a colleague showed him the Short Term 12 short, he knew he wanted to work with Cretton. “I cold reached out to him over email a handful of times. It took a few times to get a reply,” Goldstein remembers. “I asked him what he was working on and, very particularly, if he was working on something related to the short.” Cretton sent him a very early version of the Short Term 12 feature script. “I read it and immediately just felt so compelled to make the thing,” Goldstein says. “I said, ‘Look, I don’t have a million credits. I’m really young in my producing career, but I want to make this. I see this movie; it’s really clear to me. I want to do this with you.’”
They began working on the script for Short Term 12 “10 years ago this November,” Goldstein notes. “I felt like I really found a real friend and someone that artistically saw the world in the same way that I do and wanted to tell the same kind of stories and tell them in the same way that I do,” Goldstein says, “which is with a truthful and pragmatic optimism and with a sense of realism and authenticity.” As it often goes, though, it was a bit difficult to get other people to see that. “It was really hard to get Short Term 12 made,” Goldstein says. “We were facing the aftermath of the economic downturn. Very few independent films were getting made at the level that we were looking to make it, especially with first-time directors. We were sitting there with a lot of people who said, ‘I really love the script. I really love the short. I love Destin’s work, but he’s never made a feature before.’”
Eventually, Cretton was able to score a grant through the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting. It wasn’t a ton of money, but along with some additional money they had fundraised, it was enough for Cretton and Goldstein to make the “ultra-low budget” I Am Not a Hipster, their first full-length film. I Am Not a Hipster premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2012, “and that helped to finally get the funding to do Short Term 12,” Cretton says.
“No one is going out of their way to help you make your first or second movie,” Goldstein says. “Most people, myself included, weren’t able to just reach into their family pockets or were independently wealthy. The group of filmmakers that I’ve built this filmmaking family with, none of us had those resources. There’s all these different ways that you get really scrappy.”
It’s now clear that one of those ways Cretton and Goldstein “got scrappy” was by playing Moneyball with the casting of Short Term 12, making the most of their limited resources by focusing on undervalued talent. Ironically, if the pair had had more money at their disposal, they might have been able to land bigger names, but the tight budget forced them to get creative and find talented unknown actors, which in turn made the film feel even warmer and more lived-in. “It just comes down to us putting in the work and spending the time, and seeing people until we found the right people. … Every single way that you could possibly find people, we did,” Goldstein says. “Casting is the most challenging piece, because you’re looking just for an epiphany moment when you see someone say a line in a certain way or take a breath in a certain way, and they spark, and you see it. And that happened with every one of our actors, not just the ones who’ve ended up having big careers.”
Some members of Cretton and Goldstein’s cast were greener than others. Malek had worked in television and film steadily since his 2004 onscreen debut in Gilmore Girls, and in 2012 he had small parts in films ranging from The Master to The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn—Part 2 to Battleship. But it was his role as the cocky Marine Merriell “Snafu” Shelton in the 2010 HBO miniseries The Pacific that landed him on Hollywood’s radar. “To Brie’s credit, to John’s credit, to Rami’s credit, they were all known enough commodities amongst people who were paying attention, amongst agents and casting directors. They had done a lot of work,” Goldstein says.
“Rami, by the way, was championed by my producing partner in the movie, Joshua Astrachan. He and his producing partner, David Kaplan, were big Rami Malek fans. And when we were looking at that role, again, they said, ‘What about Rami?’” Goldstein adds. “So the movie is a real collaboration of all of these different ideas. But the truth is, whether it’s Kaitlyn or Lakeith or Stephanie or whoever, each of them, when they came in and they read for that role, it was just obvious who it was supposed to be. And it’s a testament to their abilities that they’ve grown in the careers that they’ve grown into, I think. Because it was just so clear then.”
There was already one role for which Cretton had found his actor, but finding him again was proving to be a bit tricky. A young Lakeith Stanfield was one of the first people to audition for the short film. (In both versions of Short Term 12, he is billed as “Keith Stanfield.”) Even as a teenager, all the raw ingredients that have made Stanfield so in demand in the latter part of the decade were there: a wounded, bashful sensitivity barely covered by a devil-may-care demeanor. (Through a representative, Stanfield declined to be interviewed for this story.) Cretton knew he wanted Stanfield to reprise his role as Marcus, a troubled teenager prone to anger and self-harm, but “I actually lost track of him because all the contact information I had was no longer in service. And he wasn’t with his manager anymore,” Cretton says. “I’d come to find out he quit acting and was living up in Victorville, with no way to contact him. And so we were auditioning other people, and no one was really landing. And it was really at the last minute I finally got an email back from Keith from one of the many emails that I sent to multiple email addresses that I found. And he said, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll come down tomorrow.’ He and his mom came down, and I put him on tape, and he was perfect.”
When it came to casting his lead, there was an element of cinephile game recognizing game. “I was a fan of Brie’s work, and from interviews that she had done, I realized how smart she was. I think she put out a movie list of her most influential movies from the Criterion Collection. And I was like, ‘Oh, that’s like a different side to Brie Larson,’” Cretton says. “I Skyped with her when she was on the set of The Spectacular Now. She has this ability where you can see her brain working behind her eyes, even when she’s not really doing anything. A big part of the Grace character is there’s a lot going on, but she’s kind of covering it up.
“And Brie was just also very personally engaged with the subject matter and felt like she really cared about it,” he adds. “And that’s the most important thing, because that’s all this character is about: caring and empathy.”
John Gallagher Jr. had won a Tony in 2007 for his performance in Michael Mayer’s musical Spring Awakening, and went on to star in Mayer’s 2011 rock musical American Idiot. But aside from a role in Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret, he wasn’t booking the type of roles he wanted. “I’d had some small parts in like a studio film here or there, but I’d mostly just done theater for eight or nine years. I was so used to banging on the door of indie movies,” he says. “Usually I would get a script, and then I would read it and fall in love with it, and there would be about 10 other really established people that they would go to first. Inevitably, one of them would say yes, and then I wouldn’t even get a chance to audition.”
Once Gallagher landed a part in Aaron Sorkin’s HBO drama The Newsroom, things started to get a bit easier for him. At the time he shared representation with Larson, and was sent the Short Term 12 script. “So I started reading, and I am not kidding, it only took about 10 or 15 pages before I was like, ‘This is really special.’ I knew almost instantly. And that’s very rare with screenplays, because they tend to be clinical documents,” he says. “I remember writing my agent back and being like, ‘I am not even halfway through this script, and I’ve cried twice.’”
In case you haven’t seen Short Term 12 or don’t fully remember it, it’s worth pointing out that the film starts with Gallagher’s character giving a monologue about crapping his pants. This was based on a real experience from one of the supervisors Cretton talked with—and Gallagher was game to do it. “For as intense as the film gets, and some of the dark depths that it plumbs, I thought, ‘Wow, this is such a disarming way to start this film,’” Gallagher says. “Destin is really skilled at skirting some of those conventions about dramatic storytelling.”
After his leads were secure, Cretton went about filling out the cast, from the younger, often first-time actors with only a few lines to Jayden, the film’s second main protagonist. Dever is one to put in the extra effort, and for her audition she dressed in character. “I really sort of had this vision in my head of what she would look like,” she says of the character’s eventual mall-punk look. For her callback, she had to read a short story about a shark and an octopus that her character Jayden wrote as a thinly veiled, almost unbearable metaphor for the abusive relationship she had with her father. “And then I had to cry and scream and yell, which is such a kind of an awkward thing to do in a small room,” she remembers. “It’s really hard to get into that place, and I don’t know how I did it.”
“I remember what it was like to be on a set at that young age. For the younger actors, I remember just wanting them to feel like they were being treated as an equal and peer,” says Gallagher, who began doing Off Broadway plays as a teenager. “But it trickled down from Destin, because he’s so approachable and so big-hearted. I think it seemed to really feel like there was a summer camp environment on set when we were making it. And just watching the incredible youth ensemble, it was inspiring on a daily basis. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I need to go back to take some acting classes or something.’”
Short Term 12 debuted at South by Southwest in the spring of 2013, taking home the Grand Jury and Audience awards, and also winning a distribution deal. “We were crying and hugging each other at the award ceremony in Austin,” says Gallagher, who also couldn’t help but notice that Larson had two other films debut at the festival, The Spectacular Now and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut, Don Jon. That, Gallagher says, was a sign that was hard to misinterpret. “I mean, I knew Brie was a star. I knew that she was heading that way. But then, being on set with her, I am not surprised that she’s an Oscar winner. I am not surprised that she’s a franchise star now. All of that stuff was all there very clearly,” he says. “She was in her early 20s when we made Short Term 12, and she was very, very hardcore about the work and really committed.”
Despite the movie’s festival success and positive reviews, however, Short Term 12 was only a modest commercial success. “It’s tough, because you want the movie to be seen at all. … I tried to just be really, really thankful that the movie got purchased, and that it came out, and that people saw it,” Gallagher says, before hinting at his deep-seated disappointment. “I can’t speak for anybody else, but I remember thinking, ‘Oh, I thought it was going to maybe have a little more steam than that.’”
Similarly disposed feelings linger in terms of the movie’s lack of success at awards shows. Short Term 12 did garner some attention from smaller voting bodies—Larson was named Best Actress at the Gotham Independent Film Awards—but it was completely shut out at the Golden Globes and Oscars. “Look, I am 100 percent biased, but I totally do think that if the film had gotten a bigger marketing push that Brie or Keith or Kaitlyn could have gotten awards, or at least been more in the conversation,” Goldstein says. “Because I think they deserved to be.” Gallagher is even more pronounced about his feelings: “There are so many movies that come out every year, and so many performances,” he says. “But I thought we had made something really special, and I certainly thought Brie had delivered a true powerhouse performance. An arrival that says, ‘I’m here, and I’m a talent to be reckoned with.’”
For his part, Cretton is much more sanguine about the reception. “Not a ton of people saw it. It didn’t have any kind of a big release. Didn’t make a ton at the box office,” he says. “But I wouldn’t change anything, because I feel like people are still discovering it now, which is really exciting to me. It’s just kind of been this underdog film that just continues to poke its head out.”
One of the film’s casting directors recently told Gallagher that “the thing that I’m the most proud of is finding those actors.” Cretton knew he had a great cast, but he’s modest enough to insist even he couldn’t have anticipated what was going to happen in the following years. “Did I know what was going to happen? No, but I hoped. You just never know who this industry is actually going to recognize,” he says. “But I knew that we had an extremely special cast. Everybody was already at the top of their game. I feel really proud and lucky to have been able to work with all of these incredible actors, back when we were all still just figuring all this shit out.”
Goldstein remembers that at most premieres, people would ask him the most about Stanfield, who eventually found his groove after living with Cretton for a year after his acting debut was released. “He was crashing on my couch while he was going in and auditioning for things. And he wasn’t booking right away, and it was a grind for him,” Cretton says. “At one point he was looking for some type of stock boy job, so he could stock at night, and then he would go and audition during the day. But then he started booking things, and people started recognizing him more. And I could not be more proud of that guy because he is a true talent.”
Once he was able to focus more on booking roles than stocking shelves, Stanfield proved to be an in-demand actor, most recently appearing in Rian Johnson’s acclaimed whodunit Knives Out. Additionally, he’s currently at work on the Ryan Coogler–produced Black Panthers biopic Jesus Was My Homeboy and will star alongside Issa Rae next Valentine’s Day in The Photograph, thus cementing the “romantic leading man” credibility he established earlier this year with his role in Netflix’s Someone Great. (As for Season 3 of Atlanta, only Donald Glover knows when that will come.) His former coworkers also look to be busy for the foreseeable future. Dever has been garnering Emmy buzz for Unbelievable, and Cretton and Larson will reteam this winter for Just Mercy before heading back into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Cretton with Shang-Chi and Larson with the inevitable Captain Marvel sequel.
Malek is currently wrapping up Mr. Robot’s four-season run, and will soon be menacing James Bond in the hotly anticipated No Time to Die. Beatriz will be busy for a while—Brooklyn Nine-Nine has been renewed for at least two more seasons—and is also working alongside Lin-Manuel Miranda on an adaptation of his musical In the Heights. After dropping by a few episodes of the miniseries Modern Love, Gallagher will be in the 2020 sci-fi thriller Underwater alongside Kristen Stewart and thriller Larry alongside Gillian Jacobs, and will reteam with Michael Mayer for the Avett Brothers musical Swept Away.
Short Term 12, meanwhile, seems to have found its audience after hitting streaming services, especially as the casts’ name recognition has grown, and it has already shown up on Best of the Decade lists. So even if it wasn’t quite the little movie that could, it eventually did connect, and Cretton is grateful that the film he became known for is something that he remains close to. “It’s a movie that does wear its heart on its sleeve. It’s emotional and it is unapologetic about that. It’s not like gritty, cool, dark. It’s about characters who love each other and they’re trying to do better for each other, and better for themselves in the world,” he says. “It’s much easier to be guarded or cynical, or just be smart. It’s harder to be open and admit vulnerability to another human being. But I can’t help it. I look at making movies as a personal journey and experience, so I think some earnestness is always going to be a part of everything I make.”
The empathy and wounded optimism of Short Term 12 is the film’s calling card, but its position as the source code for the future of Hollywood—both its ensemble and its director—is, for better or worse, the most remarkable part of its legacy. Cretton didn’t have a lot of time or a lot of money to make his second film. What he did have, in retrospect, was the best cast of the decade. Much like the crew Richard Linklater assembled for Dazed and Confused, who would go on to define the ’90s, Cretton assembled for Short a laundry list of people who were just about to break out.
Now that time has come, and for everyone—including Dever—it’s been surreal to see. From the Bowery Hotel, she thinks fondly about watching Malek take the stage in February 2019 to accept his Oscar for Best Actor for Bohemian Rhapsody, still barely able to believe it.
“I was like, man, look at him up there. He’s just glowing,” she says. “And I was the kid that spit on his face.”
Michael Tedder has written for Esquire, Stereogum, The Village Voice, and Playboy, and is the founder of the podcast and reading series Words and Guitars.