Maui Film Festival catches a rising star

WAILEA – “We’re in a really interesting time with film right now,” said 23-year-old actress Brie Larson in an interview before accepting the Maui Film Festival Rising Star Award in a Celestial Cinema tribute Sunday on the festival’s final day.

“We are in a really big transition where we are coming out of using actual film, which is a huge overhead, and created this preciousness to it. Now, we’re in a digital age and have the ability to do so much more. But because of that, I think we have lost focus about the reason film is important.”

Age 23 may seem young to be winning awards for a film career, but listening to the articulate artist, it all makes perfect sense.

She was on Maui on Sunday to accept her award in front of the giant screen on the Wailea Gold & Emerald Golf Course. The award honors “a young film artist for daring to dream big dreams and then delivering brilliant performances when opportunity knocks.”

Earlier in the evening, the festival had screened “Short Term 12” in the Maui Arts & Cultural Center’s Castle Theater. The film features a bravura performance by Larson as the young administrator of a foster-care facility for troubled youth; it was written and directed by Destin Cretton, an award-winning film artist who was born and raised on Maui.

This was Larson’s first visit to Maui, and fresh off the plane, she was savoring its sights and smells with unguarded delight. She said she couldn’t wait to wake up the next morning to find it was all still there. She also sensed the environment had helped shape Cretton’s calm assurance as a filmmaker, which had guided “Short Term 12” to the Grand Jury Award and the Audience Award at the prestigious South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas, earlier this year.

Larson also is a director in her own right as well as a musical artist. “Weighing,” which she co-directed, showed at this year’s South by Southwest Festival. And, in the music world, she signed her first record deal at age 13 and went on a national tour in 2006.

Born in Sacramento, Calif., and beginning her dramatic training when she was 6, she appeared in several TV productions when she was still in middle school. Larson’s more recent filmography includes co-starring in “21 Jump Street,” “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” “Greenberg” and “The League.” She also played the role of Kate in Showtime’s breakout drama “United States of Tara.”

She has already worked with several giants in the industry, old and young.

She described “United States of Tara’s” executive producer Steven Spielberg as, “incredibly, epically poignant, and for the most part, perfect. He has a very powerful presence, and he’s a crusader, so I’m on his team.”

She said the show’s creator, Oscar-winning “Juno” scriptwriter Diablo Cody, “is a voice of a period of time – one who took a step for females in a different direction than we had seen before.”

She called Joseph Gordon-Levitt, with whom she co-stars in his soon-to-be-released writing-directorial debut, “Don Jon,” as “a fresh young mind, who is stretching himself in every direction to see how far a human being can go.”

“Scott Pilgrim” star Michael Cera, she said, “is the sweetest gem, and a sensitive soul, with a very, very deep well that I look forward to more people seeing.”

With several upcoming releases set to thrust her into the industry spotlight, Larson was more anxious to talk about movies in more big-picture terms. For her, it’s about “the true beauty and importance of being in a theater and watching something that is 20 times bigger than you. Whatever you want to call it – religious, spiritual, personal, whatever that bigger thing is for you – it’s that feeling of letting something wash over you, and be bigger than you. And hopefully, for an hour and a half, or however long it is, if we’re doing our jobs right, you care about other people. You care about somebody else more than yourself, and it transcends.”

Gritty, yet uplifting, her experience with “Short Term 12” encapsulates that for Larson.

“I feel so lucky that I’ve experienced it,” she said. Traveling with the film to various festivals around the country, she said, “It’s the same pit of human eternal feeling that reaches everyone. It’s so exciting, and it’s a weird thing to me that that’s a rare thing that happens.

“We artists are in such a luxurious position, we’re forgetting what the point of art is, which is to remind us of the core, what human existence actually is,” she concluded. “It’s not vanity. It’s not being super skinny and doing pratfalls, and trying to find the right guy. It’s a bigger thing than that. I hope to, in my own way, be the crusader and make more films like that, or at least, not make films that are not like that.”

* Rick Chatenever can be reached at