Bao
Detainment

Live Action

Many short stories make for great feature-length films. Novels can be too expansive, while a short story has just enough characters and depth so that a film adaptation is often seamless (Brokeback Mountain is an excellent example). If short stories make for great features, then parables often make for great short films. With even less screen time, short films must tell simpler stories that have clearer messages. That is certainly the case for this year’s crop of Best Live Action Short Film nominees. As they strain for resonance, they are ultimately too dour and depressing for a shared theatrical experience.

These short films are quite simply so brutal that the only proper response is to disengage from them. There are five short films in total. Out of the five, three of them involve the death/disappearance of a child. One of them culminates with a child accidentally killing his parent. The last one is a gentler, bittersweet story that maintains a gentle wistful tone. It might be the best one, winning the Oscar by default.

Detainment, the longest of the five, is a recreation of the James Bulger investigation. James Bulger was 2 years old when he was tortured and killed by two 10-year-old boys, who ultimately became the youngest convicted murderers in the 20th century. The film focuses on flashback and interrogations, with the boys isolated from each other, sort of like an emotionally charged version of the prisoner’s dilemma. The film is already controversial in England for what it depicts, since it humanizes Bulger’s killers, who were frightened and confused. Director Vincent Lambe is not successful in his endeavor; his message is too muddled for that. Also, Bulger’s death is so cruel and tragic that Detainment is unnecessary at best, or destructive at worst. While watching the film, I could not shake the sense the young actors who play Bulger’s killers will be traumatized for their efforts.

That sense of needless trauma can be also be found in Fauve and Skin, two other short films that deal with children who are in way over their heads. That is literal in the case of Fauve, a film about two boys who play an ongoing game of chicken in a construction site. Things start to go awry once one of the boys finds himself in industrial quicksand. The image of a helpless boy drowning slowly is a lot to bear, and Fauve does not justify its protracted death. You will certainly share that helpless feeling, but nothing greater than that, so Fauve is about as effective as those Sarah McLachlan ASPCA videos. 

Skin fares slightly better since it has an edge and sense of poetic justice. It follows a family of white supremacists, and while the father clearly loves his boy of about 8, the hate in his heart leaves an even stronger impression. There is a traumatic, violent scene where the father senselessly beats a black man, and what happens to the father unearths the senselessness of racism in surreal ways. If Skin were not juxtaposed with all this grim death, it probably would have made a stronger impression.

The last two shorts, Mother and Marguerite, have no children on camera. A child is nonetheless at Mother’s forefront: It unfolds like a thriller, with a parent speaking to her young boy who is on holiday. The boy is alone on a beach—his father is nowhere to be found—and she becomes increasingly panicked as it becomes clear the boy is utterly alone. Like The Guilty, last year’s thriller about an emergency room operator, Mother operates on the simple, primal fear of a responsible adult who has no choice but to listen as things go awry. It is too short to generate real suspense, unfortunately, so it mostly serves as an example of what you can accomplish with limited resources.

Marguerite is like a tonic after the wringer of the other four shorts. It is about an elderly woman and her tender relationship with her younger caregiver. The older woman finds out the younger one is a lesbian, and that revelation causes her to reflect on her past and consider a relationship that society forbade her from exploring. Marguerite avoids the temptation of easy drama, and instead shows how two good, empathetic people gradually let their guards down so they can find a small measure of happiness. After so much numbing, senseless death, that’s the only parable you’ll want to remember. (AZ)

Animation

The most significant theme running through 2019’s Oscar-nominated short animated films is aging, whether it’s growing up or growing old. Like any good film, most of these selections meld the bitter and the sweet and hold your interest until the end of their brief running times. But, of course, if you’re not enamored by a particular story, the good news is that it’s over quickly. 

If you’re not looking for too much substance, Animal Behaviour is the most successful of the lot. It opens in a therapist’s office, where a therapy group has gathered and is repeating affirmations while hugging themselves. The twist: The therapist is a dog, and his patients are animals. There’s a leech with co-dependency issues, a pig who won’t stop eating, a praying mantis who’s finding it difficult to date with 1,000 kids and a penchant for killing her mates during sex. Then an angry ape shows up late, and things go off the rails. There’s a shocking development, but the story doesn’t stay serious for long, and the whole thing is astutely observed and very funny.  

The annual Pixar contribution is Bao. It’s the story of an aging Asian mother whose empty nest syndrome is alleviated when one of her dumplings turns into a bawling baby. She loves spending time with her son, to the point where she gets overbearing and refuses to let him grow up. Of course, that never works, and soon the kid has a goatee, a fiancée, and a chip on his shoulder. Bao’s fantasy gets a little confused—you can’t exactly say that a film about a dumpling baby becomes unrealistic—so how thoroughly you’re entertained depends on whether you allow the emotion of the short to trump its logic. (Again…) It’s not the best Pixar has ever done, but points for imagination. 

One Small Step begins with a little girl watching the moon landing and dreaming of becoming an astronaut. Her single father, a shoe repairman, buys her a pair of space boots that she wears constantly—until one day she trades them for a more grown-up pair of flip-flops. Eventually she no longer joins her dad for their daily supper and gets frustrated with her astrophysics class, which she’s failing. It takes a tragedy and an ensuing depression to turn things around. The short is at turns gleeful and heartbreaking, and its story about chasing your dreams regardless of setbacks is universal. In essence, it’s very First Man

Late Afternoon tackles Alzheimer’s. Its sadness is overcome by swirling animation and the giddiness of an elderly woman’s memories of growing up; a cookie falling into a cup of tea prompts her to essentially relive her life. Suddenly, one of these memories helps her connect to the present. The simply drawn short is lovely to behold both visually and emotionally, with the truth of the woman’s condition not evident until the very end. 

Weekends is a wordless, hand-drawn film about a kid who’s shuttled between his mother’s home and his father’s city apartment. Dad is the cool one who orders takeout and falls asleep with his son on the couch after TV marathons. His mother studies accounting, plays the piano, and wears a neck brace for an unexplained reason. This is the oddest of the five shorts, with the peculiarity of its near silence amplified by dream sequences and a go-nowhere story. Weekends doesn’t make you feel happiness or sympathy or sorrow. Instead you reach its end and think, “So what?” (TO)

Documentary

Period. End of Sentence

In our current democratic crisis, when all attempts at advocacy are met with dismissive partisan insults, perhaps the best we can do is to simply depict suffering without comment. It’s just what they teach you on the first day of film school: Show, don’t tell. Politically and artistically, the best of this year’s Oscar-nominated documentary shorts demonstrate the benefits of this approach. They shine a spotlight on the troubles we would rather not look at and hold it there, forcing us to see what we have, consciously or not, kept hidden in the shadows.

Given the world offscreen, it seems right that two of the nominees expose bigotry. A Night at the Garden unearths footage of a massive Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden in 1939. Shot in black-and-white, its grainy stock only underlines its authenticity, and even at a tight five-minute running time, its images—like that of 20,000 Americans giving the Nazi salute, or a protestor getting roughly handled by police—leave a mark. With no commentary or voiceover, this found footage paints a haunting picture of what it looks like when bigotry is structuralized.

Meanwhile, Black Sheep succeeds as a visual memoir in which Cornelius Walker, an African immigrant in England, tells of how he worked to fit in as a teenager in his new country. Surrounded by racists in his small town, he bleached his skin and wore blue contact lenses, betraying his identity for the sake of peace. Director Ed Perkins paints his portrait in bold strokes. Walker tells his story direct to camera, but Perkins dramatizes it with actors. The intense memory poem is buttressed by a sharp, dissonant score, and his palette of nighttime colors visualizes the danger to Walker’s body and soul. 

Bodies and souls are also at stake in End Game, a Netflix documentary about end-of-life care for five individuals. Using its intimate style to highlight the patients’ inherent vulnerability, it finds beauty, agony, frustration, and even joy in the dying process. “It could be terrible, and it could be wonderful,” one patient says of her death. “This part of my life has been wonderful, and who would have thought?” Moments of sheer wisdom are scattered throughout its 40-minute runtime, but I wished it had either stayed with one character, or more evenly allotted its narrative time. The story of Mitra, a loving mother and wife, gets the bulk of the screen time, probably due to her pained family’s willingness to be filmed so transparently. Other patients get only token representation, leaving End Game, despite its occasional power, offering either too much or not enough.

Period. End of Sentence. suffers at times from the same malady, although it would surely win an award for having the most clever title. It tracks the efforts of disadvantaged women in India who start their own sanitary pad producing company. It’s most edifying moments come early on, when the depths of India’s taboo against discussing menstruation are revealed in interviews with ordinary young men and women. The film quickly runs out of steam, however, diverting the audience from its noticeable lack of drama with cutesy music and a reliance on quick cuts. There may be a powerful human story here, but instead the filmmaker opts for a minor but effective tale of female empowerment. It could easily win.

There is nothing minor about Lifeboat, the likely Oscar winner, which chronicles the efforts of a crew sent by a German nonprofit organization to distressed refugee boats in the Mediterranean Sea. The images of dozens of people—including pregnant women and children—crammed so tightly into a small raft that their legs dangle over the side are unshakeable. The direct-to-camera testimonials are equally powerful, especially that of the British captain of the rescue ship, who evokes a barely there optimism that is apt for our moment:  “Maybe hope in humans is a mad, irrational thing we’ve got. But we’ve got it, anyway.” (NG)

The 2019 Oscar-Nominated Short Films opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema and Landmark Bethesda Row Cinema.