Wowee, the short film branch of the Academy is a sadistic bunch. I love the five films they nominated for Best Animated Short, but the programme for Best Live Action Short is simply intolerable. With the exception of one contender, the nominees are relentlessly bleak, exhausting, and, at times, excruciating films. Oscar completists must tread lightly in this scenario, for it might better to fill out the ballot than endure the miserable hell of a screening. At the very least, find out the screening order of the films and plan bathroom breaks or walk out times accordingly.
Courtesy Shorts HD
One of the films, frankly, gives cause for anyone who voted for it to be admonished. Vincent Lambe’s Detainmentin the UK, rightly so, for dramatizing the brutal murder of toddler James Bulger without any attempt to inform his family, seek consent from them, or empathize with their pain. The film instead directs sympathy towards James’ killers—a pair of ten-old-boys—and their parents (who, admittedly, probably went through hell) and greatly diminishes the suffering of both baby James and his family. Detainment is hugely disrespectful and irresponsible filmmaking, grossly insensitive and borderline unwatchable, especially if one has the proper context when one approaches it. Any claims for artistic merit fail in comparison to the film’s emotionally exploitative tactlessness.
As much as Detainment is repugnant, though, it’s actually my second most-hated film of the bunch. I truly abhor and loathe Guy Nattiv’s Skin, which offers a dramatic interpretation of the story of neo-Nazi skinhead/white supremacist Bryon Widner, named Johnny in the film and played by Jonathan Tucker. In real life, Widner removed his racist tattoos during his journey to reformation. In the movie—spoiler alert—Johnny brutally assaults a Black man named Tyree (Ronnie Tyrone Lee), which inspires a retaliatory movement from a gang in which they abduct the white supremacist and tattoo his skin black. In doing so, however, Skin muddles its message about the pervasive violence and toxically racist culture that continues to thrive in the USA. It shifts sympathy from the Black victim to the white neo-Nazi, who meets a violent (fictionalized) end as the tables turn and he encounters the same violence and racism he enacted daily and inspired in others, including his young son. Skin makes one’s skin crawl and stomach turn. It is unwatchable in its tone-deaf insensitivity. Look to short doc nominee Black Sheep for a better study of racism and its devastating consequences.
The premise of a child in peril fuels the emotionally exhausting Spanish contender Mother (Madre), directed by Rodrigo Sorogoyen. While not anywhere in the league of Detainment’s tastelessness, Mother remains an unpleasant watch as it recycles the one-person-on-a-phone-in-real-time routine as one mother frantically searches for clues when her son calls her from a beach where his father abandoned him. These phone call gimmicks rarely work in feature-length form (see: Locke or this year’s Danish Oscar bid The Guilty) and Mother feels overdrawn even partway through its 20-minute running time. However, there are moments of Mother that are masterfully executed as it puts audiences through hell by experiencing the pain the mother feels for her son, who moves increasingly towards the danger zone as the film progresses, and the fear running through the mind of the young boy even though he never appears onscreen. Marta Nieto’s performance as the terrified mother is a masterclass in acting and she holds the film together even at its most strenuous moments.
It’s a relief, however, to report that this year’s much-lauded Quebecois nominee Fauve, directed by Jérémy Comte, succeeds where Detainment fails abysmally and where Mother lags. The strongest of the three “child in peril” shorts of the nominees, Fauve is riveting and tense, but not without levity and release. Fauve features a happy day of boys being boys that does disastrously wrong as friends Tyler (Félix Grenier) and Benjamin (Alexandre Perrault) play rounds of chicken in which they test one another’s gullibility. The film climaxes with an all-too realistic disaster in the sinkhole of a cement quarry as fate intervenes cruelly in the boys’ game. The sequence at the quarry is breathtakingly shot, a master class in execution, timing, and blocking as Comte and cinematographer Olivier Gosset capture the scene with nerve-wracking immediacy and tension. The laudable performances by the two young actors make for an emotionally draining white-knuckler as one sits on the edge of seat watching the boys’ race against time. This cautionary fable is not an easy film to endure, but unlike two of the shorts in this line-up, it has the payoff and sense of accountability to merit the hell through which it puts the audience. Fauve is exceptionally well done.
Finally, a tip of the hat and a big warm hug goes to Marguerite, which offers a respite from the bleak agony of the other four films. The second of Canada’s nominees, Marguerite is a touching and bittersweet film about an elderly woman (Béatrice Picard in the title role) who finds a tinge of longing unlocked by her nurse, Rachel (Sandrine Bisson), who inspires her to voice her love for the first time. This delicate two-hander written and directed by Marianne Farley is a sensitive nod to the progress that’s been made in recognizing that all love is equal, but that far too many people were denied the chance to celebrate their bonds even in the recent past. Farley’s direction and writing are remarkable for their subtlety while conveying the social mores and religious influences that led to Marguerite’s denial and long-time rejection of her emotions. Understated and textured performances by Picard and Bisson allow Marguerite to rouse from her slumber. They gradually raise the temperature of the film as it radiates warmth and compassion as Marguerite finds peace in her heart. This touching film reminds audiences that positive emotions are far more effective than negative ones are.
The Oscar-nominated Live Action Shorts open in Toronto at TIFF Lightbox on Feb. 8.