"Short Term 12" was the most popular movie at South by Southwest, winning top awards from both the festival's jury and its audience.
Yet Destin Daniel Cretton's second feature-length film, based loosely on his own experience working at a foster care facility, was never supposed to get made. Cretton had made a short, and that was supposed to be that.
"A lot of people said, 'You have to have a feature version,'" Cretton told the rapturous crowd at the Topfer Theater in Austin last week. "I didn't write the short to be a feature."
After college, Cretton (pictured below with star Kaitlyn Dever) worked at the foster care home for a couple of years, stumbling into the position because he couldn't find a job. "I was frightened of doing one thing to hurt the kids more than of the kids hurting me," he told TheWrap.
One of the kids he worked with, he remembered, would beat up anyone who ever touched the top of his head.
"Every kid had these things deeply rooted in their past that were just frightening. But after three months of getting to know the kids I realized they were some of the smartest, most resilient people I have ever met," he said.
The short about his stint at the home won a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2009, prompting the film-school graduate to begin work on a feature-length screenplay. He soon ran into a wall, frustrated that he seemed to be telling the same story all over again.
"Writing the first draft it felt like I was keeping characters the same and repeating things," Cretton said. "I couldn't do it."
So he decided to do something he'd never done before -- tell the story from a woman's perspective.
The feature-length version stars Brie Larson as a young woman who has cauterized the wounds of her difficult upbringing, a youth curtailed by abuse both paternal and self-inflicted. She channels those experiences to help disadvantaged kids overcome their own adversities.
"It felt scary because I hadn't written from a female perspective," Cretton said, but it also made the project feel fresh again.
"It made every scene new -- even some of the scenes that carried over from the short into the feature."
Though the story felt fresh to Cretton, it didn't make a difference to Hollywood. Traction Media's Asher Goldstein worked with Cretton on the script, which won a Nicholl Fellowship from the Academy.
Still, the duo couldn't get additional money to fund production. Cretton was a first-time director, and the topic, foster kids, doesn't scream box office cash.
As part of winning the fellowship, Cretton got money to write another script. So he wrote his debut feature, "I Am Not a Hipster," to shoot something right away. "Hipster" debuted at Sundance in 2012 and finally earned the director financial support from Animal Kingdom for "Short Term 12."
"Sundance gave us a little bit of a resurgence of energy behind Destin as a filmmaker," Goldstein, also an associate producer of "Hipster", told TheWrap. "Not only did he have a great script, but he'd proven himself and made a feature."
There was only one casting hold-over from the initial short, Keith Stanfield (pictured left with Dever and Larson), who plays an abused 17-year-old who raps in the movie. The actor also laid down some tracks for the film's soundtrack.
Unknown kids hold most of the supplementary roles. And then there's Larson, a star of recent Sundance breakout "The Spectacular Now."
Her character Grace is at first unflappable. Whenever a kid misbehaves or appears traumatized, she has the perfect response, whether it's a stern condemnation or an understanding conversation. That's what makes her implosion so jarring.
"She transforms pretty incredibly and is just so unpredictable," Cretton said. "I lucked out. It looks like I know how to direct, but these actors are just incredible."
His family pitched in, too. Cretton relied on all of his sisters for insight into how women of a certain age act, think and feel.
"I very often heard, 'Girls don't talk like that. That's you; that's not her,'" he said, stifling laughter.
While the writer and director was unwilling to praise himself for much of anything, others filled the void. Reviews have been reverential, and every media outlet in Austin seems to have anointed Larson the festival's breakout star, something TheWrap predicted going into South by Southwest.
In a year where critics hailed the strength of programming at South by Southwest, "Short Term 12" stood out. The question now is not if the film will get bought, but when.
"You'll definitely see us at festivals," Goldstein said after the screening. "The [sales] part we're handling."
"You'll see us again."