The Motion Picture Academy has again made its nominated short films available to the general public. The collection of animated and live action movies opened in arthouse theaters across the nation January 29, and as always, they should be of great interest to any film fan or Oscar follower. The live action nominees this year are all very good, with four of the five also being exceedingly disturbing. They may be dark, but at least their grimness comes in small doses.
It’s hard to remember a collection of nominated shorts with subject matters so troubling. War, ethnic cleansing, child kidnapping, Middle Eastern clashes, international conflict – these topics are front and center of the picks of 2015. One short isn’t quite as dark, and that difference makes it shine like a beacon against the others, and it may be enough for it walk away with Oscar gold.
That lighter film is STUTTERER, about a young man dealing with his handicap. It's a surprisingly upbeat, hopeful, and wryly funny short with Matthew Needham playing the title character. He's Greenwood, a sensitive and talented London typographer who happens to stammer as painfully as the monarch in THE KING'S SPEECH. The actor does a brilliant job conveying the pain his character goes through every time he opens his mouth, but it’s his inner voice that draws us in the closest. In his head, words are no problem, and the character’s narration is both sweet and cheeky. When he assesses those around them, he imbues his subjects with little secrets, even defects, to create a world as flawed as he sees himself.
Then his Facebook friend Ellie suggests they meet and take their online flirtation into an offline relationship, and Greenwood fears she’ll find his problem a deal breaker. His worry is heartbreaking, but he approaches his plight with a pluck and verve that keeps the story from ever becoming maudlin. Writer/director Benjamin Cleary masterfully tells his 12-minute tale of star-crossed love, and even edits it himself with a crispness that keeps things buoyant and exciting.
After that, the pickings get dark and darker. AVE MARIA is a Palestine/France/Germany effort about an Israel family’s errant automobile crashing into the Virgin Mary statue outside a convent of Arab Catholic nuns. The women of God are practicing vows of silence, and the Jews need to get home to for the Sabbath as well, so the story here becomes a darkly comic culture clash. Their conflict turns into a battle of wills, traditions, and religious piety as the nuns try to help an antagonistic family that is already warring with each other. Will the nuns' beater of a car start? Could this blasphemy against the religious statue turn into an international incident? And is there a possibility that enemy soldiers, from either side, will show up to add to the fight? These are the tense matters at hand in this broadly played comedy that still seems to teeter on the edge of becoming a tragedy at any moment.
Things continue to get darker with the revelations found in EVERYTHING WILL BE OK (Alles Wird Gut in German). The German/Austrian production concerns a divorced father’s desperate attempt to steal his 8-year-old daughter Lea away from the custody of her mother. Writer/director Patrick Vollrath tightens the screws with every second of this 30-minute piece as the father keeps his plot a secret from all, including his unsuspecting daughter. She thinks it’s just a weekend visit, but soon enough she starts to realize that dad is taking passport photos and doing state paperwork to get her out of Germany. As Lea's awareness grows, our sympathy for her father lessens. And when his whole scheme goes belly up at a cheap hotel by the airport, we're left fearing he'll get his daughter killed. It’s a harrowing and sad story, likely similar to many divorces, with no winning parties at play.
What can trump such a tale of domestic tragedy? War can, and the remaining two shorts serve up stories against such a backdrop. Children are at the center of Kosovo’s first Oscar-nominated short SHOK. That means friend, and indeed this doomed tale is about two Albanian boys learning the limits of their bond when facing the brutality of an occupying Serbian regime. Petrit, the more daring of the two, is selling cigarette papers to the enemy patrolling their town. He convinces his best friend Oki that they can make money off of the soldiers. However, war is more about enemies than friends and soon their bond will fall victim to a most uncivil war. The only problem here is that the shorter length doesn’t allow for quite enough nuance and subtly in its storytelling. Some of it comes off as two-dimensional, particularly its villains. Perhaps this story needed to be a feature to maximize its potential.
The most dramatic of the lot is DAY ONE, an American production that illustrates an Afghan-American woman’s first day on the job as an interpreter for American forces in Afghanistan. Layla Alizada gives a beautifully modulated performance in this 29-minute film as her naive character quickly becomes immersed in the hell that is war. She's scheduled to interview a suspected enemy combatant but that task takes a wild left turn when the Afghan man's pregnant wife goes into labor. Called upon to deliver the baby, she encounters further complications when Afghan propriety prevents any physical help from the male soldiers around her. This is a narrative fraught with dread from its opening moments, and we share in her terror the entire time. There are also a number of shocking twists, one darker than the previous one, as writer/director Henry Hughes brings his brilliant film based on his real-life military experiences to authentic and ghastly life.
Any filmed story, be it dark or light, long or short, can be entertaining, but these thought-provoking shorts produce a lot of food for thought as well. Four of these five may be bitter to the taste, but their art is obvious. And in an Oscar season marred by exclusion, it’s impressive that this list of live action shorts is so progressive. Perhaps they will create their own hashtag - anyone for #shortssodarkanddaring?