Oscar Live Action Shorts: Not a Stinker in the Bunch

My Nephew Emmett
Courtesy of TIFF
It often happens that the five Oscar nominees for Best Animated Short are significantly stronger than their live action counterparts are. Such is not the case this year. While there is an air of familiarity to the quintet of nominees for Best Live Action Short, this year’s Oscar contenders are a solid group. There isn’t a stinker in the bunch.

The Academy has a sentimental favourite in The Silent Child (Dir. Chris Overton; UK, 20 min.), a compelling and touching message movie about respecting the needs and abilities of hearing-impaired children. The film stars Rachel Shenton (who serves double duty as screenwriter) as Joanne, a compassionate social worker/teacher who forges a bond with her young student Libby (newcomer Maisie Sly in a touching performance). Libby is deaf, but her parents and siblings, who can hear, are insensitive to her needs and can’t be bothered to communicate with her. They dismiss her as an abnormal invalid, while Joanne interactions with Libby teach audiences the value in seeing everyone at eye level and making an earnest attempt to listen and communicate with someone regardless of his or her perceived abilities. This poignant portrait of a child lost to a system ends with a convincing call to action for education reform.

The shorts line-up offers a pair of two-handers with The Eleven O’clock (Dir. Derin Seale; Australia 13 min.) and DeKalb Elementary (Dir. Reed Van Dyk; USA, 21 min.). These films rely on a pair of performances apiece as two actors carry their respective situations through dialogue and screen chemistry. The Eleven O’clock, the lone comedy among the nominees, basically adapts the famous “Who’s on First?” routine by Abbott and Costello as two men, played by Josh Lawson and Damon Herriman, encounter one another in a psychiatrist’s office. Each man claims to be the doctor and assumes the other the patient while the helpless temporary secretary (Jessica Wren) simply knows that the eleven o’clock appointment is a new patient who believes he is a psychiatrist. DeKalb, on the other hand, stars Tarra Riggs as Cassandra, the administrator of an elementary school who maintains pressure and courage under fire when an armed assailant (Bo Mitchell) storms the building and demands she negotiate with the police on his behalf. Both short films tackle representations of mental illness quite differently with the former struggling to reconcile the metamorphosis between laughing with and laughing at a character, and with the latter offering an engrossing study in empathy. Riggs’ exceptionally strong performance anchors and elevates DeKalb Elementary to deliver a bold and jarringly realistic portrayal of violence and everyday heroes. It’s one of the best performances of the year in any film of any length. Rent DeKalb Elementary on Vimeo.

Violence fuels two other nominated shorts, Watu Wote: All of Us (Dir. Katja Benrath; Germany/Kenya, 22 min.) and My Nephew Emmett (Dir. Kevin Wilson, Jr.; USA, 22 min.), which won Student Academy Awards last year for Foreign Film and Narrative work, respectively. These true crime sagas introduce talented newcomers to the field with their poignant considerations of violence, grief, and collective healing process inspired by traumatic events. Watu Wote whisks viewers to Kenya where Benrath dramatizes an episode in the conflict between Muslims and Christians in which a bus travelling through the country was attacked by an army of Islamic extremists. The goons point their guns at the Christian passengers, while the Muslims on the bus band together to protect their fellow travellers. Watu Wote is hopeful in its gripping interpretation of the event with a strong ensemble cast conveying the conflict of tension, prejudice, and, finally, compassion to create a powder keg that the film effectively diffuses.

My Nephew Emmett, finally, deserves to upgrade Wilson’s Student Academy Award to a full-fledged Oscar with its powerful dramatization of the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old boy from Chicago who was murdered when he visited family in Mississippi and whistled the wrong way at a white woman. It's the clear standout. The film sees the story through the perspective of Till’s uncle Mose (L. B. Williams in a performance of sensitive and understated greatness) who foresees the brutal act and waits out the night for the violence he can’t stop from coming. My Nephew Emmett elucidates the same reflections on race in Mississippi as Dee Rees’ Mudbound does with a final act that echoes the murder of Emmett Till. Audiences familiar with the feature are bound to draw similar connections thanks to the breathtaking cinematography by Laura Vallado, which bathes the screen in powerful hues of blue and orange and makes the short the most visually compelling and aesthetically sophisticated film of the nominees. (Vallado will surely join Mudbound DP Rachel Morrison one day in the class of Oscar-nominated female cinematographers.) In many ways, My Nephew Emmett keeps its focus sharp and fixed where Mudbound loses its power in the disjointed array of narratives and perspectives. Emmett illustrates the great art of short filmmaking by conveying with vivid poignancy one fateful night in history by seeing the events through one set of eyes intimately close to the action, yet powerless to help. What an outstanding work of art.

Which short gets your vote?

The Oscar-nominated Live Action shorts and Animated Shorts open in Toronto at TIFF Lightbox on Feb. 9 and in Ottawa at The ByTowne on Feb. 23.